RACE IN AMERICA JULY 16, 2013
Jelani Cobb, whose coverage of the Trayvon Martin case has been nothing short of extraordinary, has a post on The New Yorker's website about the lack of riots after the verdict. (Well, except for the black soul singer who was attacked after dedicating a song to Martin). Cobb quotes Newt Gingrich who, in a statement that nicely captures the combination of absurdity and nastiness that defines him, claimed that those marching over the verdict were "prepared, basically, to be a lynch mob." As Cobb writes, "This country has a long history of lynchings, but not one in which non-black defendants needed to fear the fury of black mobs." Cobb also writes, astutely, that "the mass uprisings that followed the Rodney King verdict and Martin Luther King’s assassination remain lodged in public memory. The riots to prevent busing and punish blacks who wandered into white neighborhoods do not." He chalks up the Gingrich comment to the idea, put forward with real resolve in the conservative media, that whites are the ones who are victimized by racism in America.
All of this and more is true, but I think the concern over violence was slightly more complex than Cobb allows. On election day, 2008, I walked outside my apartment building and ran into a black man who used to work there. He was standing with a friend (who was also black), and I asked them how they were feeling about the election. "Nervous," he said. I replied that I was nervous too. "Yeah," he said, "but your neighborhood isn't going to burn if Obama loses." I asked what he meant. He replied that Obama was up in the polls, and that if he went into election day so clearly ahead, and ended up losing there would be mass rioting, either because of anger that white voters underwent (too passive a term, I know) The Bradley Effect, or because of a perception that the election was fixed.
This conversation stayed with me, as did the moment the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced during my eighth grade English class in the overwhelmingly black middle-school I attended. White parents were concerned that a guilty verdict would lead to violence (Rodney King was a recent memory, and the Los Angeles Police Department was none too popular), but it was a black classmate who told me, after the acquital and after all the cheering died down, that she had been worried for her school and her neighborhood if it had gone the other way.
Neither of these anecdotes lessens the awful nature of comments like Gingrich's, but I do think Cobb should recognize the lack of violence for what it is: a real sign of progress. A foreign example would be the absence of large-scale rioting after the attacks on Bombay in 2008, where there was the (not unfounded) fear that the country's Muslim minority would face the wrath of its Hindu majority. Something similar had, after all, happened several times in the previous 15 years. (Now that I think about it, this case study would mirror how Gingrich and his ilk must see black-white relations in America, minus the demographics: whites are the besieged, just like India's Muslims). Anyway, India's calm was a sign of progress, however tenuous (the country may elect an essentially fascist Hindu extremist as its next prime minister). In the Zimmerman trial, too, the concern about violence was not just of the Gingrich variety. It was also a fear among people who actually care about racism that the country hasn't come as far as it has. On a week when it is abundantly clear that America has a long, long, long way to go towards equality, this bit of non-news is the one reason for optimism.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.