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BETSY HART: A discussion on race worth having

on July 22, 2013 10:20 AM

In the outrage over the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, I’ve been struck most by how we apparently think human beings are so perfectible.

The two things might not seem connected, but they are.

I’m not talking about the reality that a young man was killed and no person will go to prison for his killing, and how devastating that is to his parents and others who loved the young Trayvon. I’m also not talking about the opportunity for self-serving outrage cooked up by Jesse Jackson and his ilk, who will always assign racial bias to situations like this because it advances their political aims and grudges.

Somewhere in the middle are those, regardless of race, who can’t accept that a jury could not be convinced to convict Zimmerman in the killing. So hence more “discussion” — accusations, demonstrations, even some looting, burning and assaults — in our ongoing “racial dialogue.”

As far as that goes, Jason Riley wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal following the acquittal pointing out that blacks commit a hugely disproportionate number of crimes in the U.S. and focusing on that reality.

Where it comes from and what to do about it and how it impacts the way all of us think, he suggests, would be a great place to start any discussion on race and crime and bias.

Perhaps it’s relevant that Riley himself is black. But even that’s not what I’m talking about.

Thabiti Anyabwile, a pastor who is black, got a lot closer to my point. He wrote a thoughtful piece about the acquittal and his personal reaction to it, including his grief related to Trayvon’s death, in an essay appearing on the Gospel Coalition ( website.

One of his observations: That he is thinking a lot about the 1950s here — but not because of the black leaders who have said the Zimmerman acquittal reminds them of that era and what it was like then for black Americans. But, rather, because: “In 1950, there would not likely have been a Zimmerman trial.

In 1950, there might not have been an opportunity for Trayvon’s family to bring suit or seek justice. In 1950, Martin wouldn’t have been able to walk as freely in a white downtown area or neighborhood, and his parents would not have been free to move in those areas, either. In 1950, there would have been zero media coverage.

And though you can’t tell it by the widespread public reactions in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, in 1950 there would have been no outcry or protest.”

Now, all that will likely strike many as “How dare Betsy Hart write like that? What, black Americans should be ‘happy’ because we are no longer living in that kind of racially totalitarian society? That’s outrageous!”

So although “happy” might not be the right word, how about “thoughtful”?

Here’s where the relevance of man’s nonperfectible nature comes into play. We humans are deeply corrupt and corruptible. Good grief, let’s look at the last 100 years alone. World wars, attempts at extinctions of entire peoples, repression, terrorism. Extreme racism is part, but just one part, of a very long list of the way men have gone out of their way to be inhuman to other men.

In fact, the history of the entire world is one of slavery and abuse of different races.

There is a small window in a small place in human history — recent decades in the West — where that has not been the predominant narrative. In one unique place called America, we’ve gone from enslaving a people; to fighting a war to end that slavery; yet systematically persecuting certain races with laws and other actions; to fundamentally changing the law; to making it possible to prosecute racism and, short of that, making racism socially unacceptable; to ever-increasing rates of interracial marriage; to electing a black president with very little discussion about race at all.

In so many ways, we’ve become a post-racial society. And so we have done something in America that no other country has ever done when it comes to race relations.

If you believe that man is perfectible, then right: It’s not anything to get excited about because there is so much work left to do.

But if you believe that man is profoundly corruptible, then you look at that history and you say, “Wow! America has done something very different and very amazing and very unusual when it comes to matters of race. Why? How was that possible? How do we build on that as we move forward?”

In the wake of the Zimmerman acquittal and always, I think that’s the racial discussion worth having.

Contact Betsy Hart at

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