Shelby Steele: The Exploitation of Trayvon Martin
…In fact Trayvon’s sad fate clearly sent a quiver of perverse happiness all across America’s civil rights establishment, and throughout the mainstream media as well. His death was vindication of the “poetic truth” that these establishments live by. Poetic truth is like poetic license where one breaks grammatical rules for effect. Better to break the rule than lose the effect. Poetic truth lies just a little; it bends the actual truth in order to highlight what it believes is a larger and more important truth.
The civil rights community and the liberal media live by the poetic truth that America is still a reflexively racist society, and that this remains the great barrier to black equality. But this “truth” has a lot of lie in it. America has greatly evolved since the 1960s. There are no longer any respectable advocates of racial segregation. And blacks today are nine times more likely to be killed by other blacks than by whites.
If Trayvon Martin was a victim of white racism (hard to conceive since the shooter is apparently Hispanic), his murder would be an anomaly, not a commonplace. It would be a bizarre exception to the way so many young black males are murdered today. If there must be a generalization in all this—a call “to turn the moment into a movement”—it would have to be a movement against blacks who kill other blacks. The absurdity of Messrs. Jackson and Sharpton is that they want to make a movement out of an anomaly. Black teenagers today are afraid of other black teenagers, not whites.
So the idea that Trayvon Martin is today’s Emmett Till, as the Rev. Jackson has said, suggests nothing less than a stubborn nostalgia for America’s racist past. In that bygone era civil rights leaders and white liberals stood on the highest moral ground. They literally knew themselves—given their genuine longing to see racism overcome—as historically transformative people. If the world resisted them, as it surely did, it only made them larger than life.
It was a time when standing on the side of the good required true selflessness and so it ennobled people. And this chance to ennoble oneself through a courageous moral stand is what so many blacks and white liberals miss today—now that white racism is such a defeated idea. There is a nostalgia for that time when posture alone ennobled. So today even the hint of old-fashioned raw racism excites with its potential for ennoblement.
For the Revs. Jackson and Sharpton, for the increasingly redundant civil rights establishment, for liberal blacks and the broader American left, the poetic truth that white racism is somehow the real culprit in this tragedy is redemption itself. The reason Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have become such disreputable figures on our cultural landscape is that they are such quick purveyors of poetic truth rather than literal truth.
The great trick of poetic truth is to pass itself off as the deep and essential truth so that hard facts that refute it must be dismissed in the name of truth. O.J. Simpson was innocent by the poetic truth that the justice system is stacked against blacks. Trayvon was a victim of racist stereotyping—though the shooter never mentioned his race until asked to do so.
There is now a long litany of racial dust-ups—from Tawana Brawley to the Duke University lacrosse players to the white Cambridge police officer who arrested Harvard professor Skip Gates a summer ago—in which the poetic truth of white racism and black victimization is invoked so that the actual truth becomes dismissible as yet more racism.
When the Cambridge cop or the Duke lacrosse players or the men accused of raping Tawana Brawley tried to defend themselves, they were already so stained by poetic truth as to never be entirely redeemed. No matter the facts—whether Trayvon Martin was his victim or his assailant—George Zimmerman will also never be entirely redeemed…