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Conservatives' Twisted, Racist Logic in the Trayvon Martin Case

Just because more African Americans are incarcerated, it does not mean a given individual is more likely to commit a crime.

The killing of Trayvon Martin is a Rorschach test for American society. This tragedy reveals a deep divide in our political imaginations and communities. It also is a mirror for the fissures of race, ideology and party that still vex and befuddle us to the present.

Some folks imagine themselves, their children, and members of their communities as  Trayvon Martin. To their eyes,  Trayvon is a symbol of how American society all too often devalues the lives of people of color.

Other people imagine themselves as George Zimmerman. To them, he is a victim, a good man who only wanted to protect his neighborhood from crime and “suspicious” people. Moreover, the assertion that George Zimmerman acted out of racial bias in his hunting and killing of Trayvon Martin is personally offensive to them.

Because Zimmerman is “them,” and “they” are Zimmerman, he is quite simply a "law-abiding" citizen who is  being made a victim of “reverse racism,” “race hustlers,” and the "liberal media.

Black men are scary, frightening and suspicious to George Zimmerman and those people who think like him. These beliefs are part of a matrix of racism, prejudice and stereotypes that are reproduced and disseminated throughout American culture. Ultimately, many on the Right see George Zimmerman as a hero figure. For voters primed on a toxic mix of conservative rhetoric that bundles together such issues as race, guns, and crime,  George Zimmerman is a fetish and totem for their wish fulfillment.

In the post-civil rights era, old fashioned racism is out of style. Consequently, supporting George Zimmerman necessarily requires the shaming and smearing of Trayvon Martin. Perhaps I am too generous, but I would like to believe that even for the most strident conservative authoritarians and colorblind racists there would be some level of cognitive dissonance to be overcome in order to justify the killing of an unarmed black teenager who was guilty of no more than holding a bag of Skittles, and walking home in the rain wearing a hooded sweatshirt.

The solution to this puzzle comes in a common sense appeal to black thuggery, hooliganism and a logic suggesting that people like Trayvon Martin are existential threats to civil order and society: to that end, Zimmerman’s defenders marshal “data” and “statistics” proving that black men commit a “disproportionate” amount of crime in American society. This “fact” becomes a casus belli for shooting down innocent black and brown people in the streets either at the hands of police, or corrupt vigilantes such as George Zimmerman.

This logic hangs in the ether, hiding in plain sight, and has gone little discussed in the public conversation about the Trayvon Martin shooting. The claim that black people commit more crime, and thus black men in particular should always be treated as uniquely and singularly capable of violence, is accepted and legitimized even by some liberals and progressives.

When conservatives bring up this point, many defenders of Trayvon Martin stutter and stammer through the inevitable, “that may be true, but…” moment. Rarely do they attack the premise of what is a centuries-old “true lie” that black people, and black men in particular, are criminal bogeyman and hoodlums–civilized and under control until they decide to lash out and show their true selves like metaphorical savage beasts, a dagger, or a bomb waiting to go off at any moment in the heart of “normal” society. Instead, many accept the terms of this true lie, and give it credence by accepting the premise of the argument.

In reality, matters are much more complicated. A surrender to a basic and fallacy laden argument that black people, and black young people in particular are uniquely and especially prone to violence, oversimplifies the nature of crime in America. As the old saying goes, “numbers lie and liars figure.” Or alternatively, the lazy recitation of statistics is a dumb person’s idea of how a smart person sounds.