Race in America: Trayvon Martin, Tulsa killings raise contentious questions

Troubling cases involving race, including the Trayvon Martin shooting and this week's killing of several blacks in Tulsa, Okla., raise difficult social and political issues for many Americans.

Lance Murphey/Reuters
Singers from Mt. Olivet Baptist Church wear hoodies as a tribute to Trayvon Martin during a ceremony to rename Linden Avenue to "Dr. M.L. King Jr. Avenue" in Memphis, Tennessee, April 4, 2012. The civil rights leader was assassinated 44 years ago on April 4, 1968.

There are points along the historical continuum of social and political dialogue in America where race flashes forth, usually emitting more heat than light.

The Trayvon Martin case seems to be one of those. Coincidence or not, it comes at a time when authorities are sorting through another incident in which deadly violence may have been racial in nature, this one in Tulsa, Okla.

On Feb. 26 in Sanford, Fla., neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman (who is white-Hispanic) shot and killed black unarmed teenager Martin under disputed circumstances.

There may or may not have been a struggle, and if so it’s unclear who initiated it. It’s unclear whether Zimmerman was hurt, which might be used as a self-defense legal argument. From 911 recordings and the recollection of some neighbors in the area, it’s also unclear who cried out in fear before a shot was heard, although two experts in sound analysis have ruled out Zimmerman.

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Six weeks after the event, authorities have yet to decide whether Zimmerman should be charged with a crime – a source of particular frustration to Martin’s family and supporters conducting daily rallies and vigils around the country. It’s also prompted reexamination of “Stand Your Ground” laws in Florida and some two dozen other states under which citizens may use deadly force rather than retreat when they think they're in danger.

Meanwhile, Zimmerman’s family and supporters likewise are preparing for any prosecution that might result, building a defense case in a series of media interviews.

Like thousands of bloggers and other online commenters, many Monitor readers have weighed in over stories about race and the Martin-Zimmerman case, either in the comments section of csmonitor.com or in emails to reporters.

One common theme here: Frustration over repeated coverage of civil rights activists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, seen as primarily self-promotional. Another: The failure by the media to point out black-on-white violence that might be classified as “hate crimes” or to note that most violence done to blacks is committed by blacks.

The racial divide in the Martin-Zimmerman case also can be seen in who is paying attention and what they believe about the case.

Blacks, younger people, women, Democrats, and those of modest means are more likely to see race as an important factor. Blacks and Democrats also are much more likely to be following the story than whites or Republicans, the Pew Research Center finds in a public opinion survey, and whites and Republicans are much more likely to say there’s been too much coverage of Martin’s death.

The mainstream media feels the heat generated by racial issues.

NBC News this week fired a producer responsible for editing audio clips that made it sound as if George Zimmerman’s following Trayvon Martin was racially motivated when in fact Zimmerman made no reference to Martin’s race until a 911 dispatcher asked him about it.

On Sunday, National Review editor Rich Lowry fired longtime columnist John Derbyshire for a webzine article in which whites were advised that “before voting for a black politician, scrutinize his/her character much more carefully than you would a white” and to “not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress.”

(In his own column, Lowry points to a 2005 FBI report stating that in 93 percent of the cases in which blacks are homicide victims, the killer was black.)

Meanwhile, early Sunday morning in Tulsa, Okla., police arrested two white men in connection with the killing of three black people and the shooting of two others – apparently randomly-selected victims. It was a jarring blow to a city that in 1921 had seen a major race riot in which dozens of blacks were killed and a well-to-do black area of the city burned to the ground.

One of those arrested Sunday had written on his Facebook page that his father had been shot to death on April 5, 2010, by a black man who is now serving a prison sentence for the crime, the Wall Street Journal reported. He recently made several references to the anniversary of his father's death on Facebook, using racial slurs to describe his father's killer.

The men now in custody are expected to be charged with three counts of first-degree murder and two counts of shooting with intent to kill in the spate of shootings early Friday. Police officials said it was too soon to attribute the attacks to race, but community leaders expressed concern about the motivation for the shootings, as well as the possibility that they would provoke a vigilante response, the Associated Press reported.

But there’s also a sense of relief that the alleged killers have been apprehended.

“The community once again can go about its business without fear of there being a shooter on the streets today, on Easter morning,” said Rev. Warren Blakney Sr., president of the Tulsa NAACP.

Gun nation: Inside America's gun-carry culture

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