by Harry Stein City Journal
On February 18, 2009, less than a month into President Obama’s supposedly postracial presidency, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder commemorated Black History Month by declaring America “essentially a nation of cowards.” The reason: “We, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race. . . . If we are to make progress in this area we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us.” Holder’s words left many commentators flabbergasted. Too little discussion of race? Race has long been our national obsession, a pastime more widely followed than football (which itself regularly gives rise to racial conflagrations) or Oprah Winfrey (who’s never averse to fanning the flames). Liberal commentators refuse to shut up about race; college students have it pushed in their faces from the first day of orientation to the de rigueur pieties about “diversity” and “social justice” at graduation; most every Fortune 500 company has instituted policies aimed at hiring and promoting minorities, and woe to those recalcitrant managers who adhere to more traditional standards of merit.
Holder’s invocation of Americans’ supposed cowardice on racism was most notable for its timing. He spoke at what was understood everywhere to be a celebratory moment. Even most of us who’d strongly opposed candidate Obama, shouting ourselves hoarse that his policies would be disastrous, were gratified by what his election said about the citizens of this great land: that easily bamboozled as we can be, we are not bigots. That though parts of our country abandoned legally sanctioned bigotry a mere two generations ago, we have traveled farther, faster, than once would have seemed possible, embracing true racial tolerance – which is to say, indifference to skin color – more deeply than any other people on Earth.
Yet clearly this was not the message some in administration circles took from Obama’s election, and certainly not the one they wanted Americans to hear. For the world as they see it to make sense, racism must be ever-present, since it’s the all-purpose explanation for every problem that minorities in America confront. It soon became apparent that this was the thinking Holder brought to his own vital department. Rarely has the attorney general hesitated to snatch up the nearest available race card – from his startling decision early on to drop a case that his predecessors had already won against members of the New Black Panther Party for intimidating white voters at a Philadelphia polling place, to his claim that criticism of himself and the president over the disastrously botched Fast and Furious program was “due to the nature of our relationship and, you know, the fact that we’re both African-American.”
Which brings us to the Trayvon Martin case. From the outset, mainstream coverage overwhelmingly reflected the narrative on contemporary race relations that Holder and other prominent liberals hold dear: one relentlessly focused on white racism and black victimhood. As the story went viral, the media consensus was close to unanimous: 17-year-old Martin was murdered essentially for the crime of being a black kid in a hoodie walking in a white neighborhood, and his racist killer was getting off scot-free. “Rallies Across US Demand Justice,” ABC News summed it up. It is evidence of how firmly this version of events took hold that when, early on, Jesse Jackson likened Martin to Emmett Till – the 14-year-old black boy slaughtered in 1955 Mississippi, whose smirking murderers were acquitted in an hour – the appalling comparison went all but unchallenged.
In fact, over the first few days, as the media covered march after march and rally after angry rally, those less inclined to jump to judgment prudently held their peace, lest they risk an accusation of condoning murder or blaming the victim or (for of course this was implicit) being soft on racism. But then those stubborn things, facts, began to emerge, and suddenly the story was no longer so clear. Far from the classic racist, George Zimmerman turned out to be a guy with black friends who tutored black kids on weekends. Equally damaging, he was half-Hispanic – or, as the New York Times hopefully called him, clinging to the white-racism line, a “white Hispanic.” Nor was the dead boy necessarily as angelic as he’d been portrayed – partly by the ubiquitous photo taken when he was just 12. According to the Miami Herald, he’d been suspended from school three times for possessing marijuana residue, scrawling “W.T.F.” on a school locker, and having in his backpack, which was searched by a school security guard, “women’s rings and earrings and a screwdriver, described by the staffer as a ‘burglary tool.’”