History can be a tricky thing.
As a nation, we are growing historically illiterate. It’s easy to blame schools, but we are also running out of parents who care that their sons and daughters know what the thirteen original colonies were or where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.
History is precious. It is our legacy, and it contains lessons that can help us plot a brighter future.
But in the days since the Zimmerman verdict, objectors are pointing to “history” in a way that hampers clarity and actually hurts race relations.
Surely you have heard voices protesting the jury’s findings with logic that loosely follows this path: Trayvon Martin simply must be an innocent victim and Zimmerman must be a hostile racist because of years of past white racism against blacks.
So, slavery and Jim Crow laws and separate restrooms and various random acts of residual racism today are all cobbled together to support a conclusion that George Zimmerman is a murderer.
There, in a nutshell, is the biggest obstacle to this “conversation” about race that we are all supposed to be having. Some people are walking around with a willful impediment to informed participation in such dialogue. Their sense of logic is impaired by politics or personal struggle or any of a number of other factors distracting them from the actual evidence in the case.
People can be all over the map on general issues of race in our politics, our justice system and our daily lives. But there is simply no avoiding the complete absence of evidence that Zimmerman is a racist who was motivated by animus toward blacks the night he shot Martin, or any other night.
While I can see certain pockets of public reaction blinded by such biases, I cannot condone a President of the United States buying into this poisonous distraction and leading the excuse-making for it.
In his divisive remarks last week, Barack Obama relived the times when he was followed in department stores or regarded suspiciously by people locking cars or clutching their handbags as he walked by.
I have eternal empathy for anyone with that story to tell. I cannot imagine the sadness and anger it can instill.
But here’s the problem: “Those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida,” the President explained. “And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.”
If that’s true, we are doomed.
It is precisely the responsibility of thoughtful people to avoid letting past events “inform” them about what is in front of their faces today.