2:37 PM EDT, July 20, 2013
My fellow white people — many of us, maybe most of us — get really weird about the subject of race, especially when black people raise questions about the way they are treated. Reactions range from silence to white-hot vitriol to moderate unease to social-media snark.
All of that was on display in the past week, after the verdict in the George Zimmerman case in Florida.
Andy Harris, Maryland's lone Republican in Congress, said people who complained about Zimmerman's acquittal in the shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin should "get over it." With that dismissive comment, Harris spoke for all white Americans who dislike conversations about race and who wish black Americans would stop complaining about conditions and stop contriving racism.
On Friday, just when things seemed to be getting quiet again on the American race front, President Barack Obama disturbed the peace with remarkable comments about having been profiled racially when he was younger.
"You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son," Obama said. "Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago."
Here's the first reaction I saw online from a white person about Obama's remarks: "What does he want, race riots? … He is dangerously awful."
I guess this is what we call "having a dialogue about race" now.
While many of my fellow white people clearly understood — and joined in — the angry reaction to the Trayvon Martin case, I mostly heard pushback: defending Zimmerman, saying he never should have been tried, accusing the media and "race hustlers" of stoking controversy.
One of the most common white rebuttals was the argument that black Americans were exploiting the racial aspects of Martin's death while ignoring black-on-black crime elsewhere.
From a Facebook post: "WHERE IS THE OUTRAGE? In the 513 days between Trayvon dying, and the verdict, 11,106 African-Americans have been murdered by other African-Americans and they were in Chicago, NY, LA, Detroit and Baltimore."
That comment suggests that African-Americans are not sufficiently concerned about all the other deaths of young black men that occur in our country. Why don't they take to the streets to protest those killings?
I need to unpack this a little for white people who consider it a savvy response to the outrage over the Zimmerman verdict.
First of all, the idea that black people monolithically abide the killings is wrong and insulting.
In Baltimore, which is having a bullet-riddled July, people — mostly black people — have taken to the streets to spread the message that they won't stand for continued gun violence. Preachers and community leaders have been doing this for years.
"Many white people don't actually know many black people, much less what is going on in their communities," says Tim Wise, the anti-racism activist and author of "Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority."
He says white critics of black civil rights leaders always have accused them of exploiting racially charged issues while ignoring larger problems.
"But they are civil rights leaders; civil rights is what they do, that's their wheelhouse," Wise says.
David Miller, co-founder of the Urban Leadership Institute in Baltimore, is devoted to the challenge of helping single mothers raise their sons. So he's doing his part. But what about everyone else? Some white people, I told him, don't think blacks are sufficiently outraged about the killings in the black community.
"Many in the black community could ask related questions about the lack of outrage in the white community," he said. "Violence of any form is unacceptable."
Miller raised the specter of the mass killings in Newtown, Conn., last December.
"I have never seen a young black male walk into an elementary school and shoot young children. And Congress, which is composed of mostly white men, was unable to pass any significant gun legislation," he said.
Erich March, the prominent Baltimore funeral director, has organized vigils. He's tried to rally people to action during the city's epoch of drug addiction, drug dealing and violence — big forces, perhaps impossible to defeat.
I asked him about the criticism that blacks do not express sufficient outrage about the daily killings of young black men.
"The difference of one instance of homicide creating mass protests and countless others going uncontested as business as usual within the black community can be understood in the context of motive," he says.
"Homicides within the black community are about the drug business. More often than not, a black man is killed by another black man because of competition, embezzlement and territorial trespassing."
Reaction to killings of that nature are subdued, sometimes nonexistent.
"But when an innocent bystander or a child is the victim of violence," March says, "the response is usually immediate and indignant because it is not business as usual."
Similarly, Trayvon Martin's death was not business as usual. It sparked a strong response among African-Americans because of what they suspected Zimmerman's motive to be when he pursued the unarmed 17-year-old.
I hope that helps my fellow white people understand a little more. Sometimes, when you actually speak with black people, you pick up a few things.
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun