The Zimmerman trial and race in the media: The usual soapbox derby

On July 16, after the Zimmerman trial had concluded with a “not guilty” verdict and a small army of experts and selected citizens were wrangling over the implications on television, you could have found these two statements in the media: “We’ve Had Our Conversation on Race. Now We Need One on Guns,” Alec Macgillis proclaimed in the New Republic. In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Ekon N. Yankah, a professor of law at the Cordoza School of Law in New York, complained that “we are tired of hearing that race is a conversation for another day.”

I have to agree with the professor. From what I saw and read, the conversation has not yet taken place. What the media, with the usual exceptions, did offer was its traditional soapbox derby of opinions and half-baked notions, of platitudes and pieties, of misinformation and prejudice, of political correctness and worn outrage.

Even the good professor, as he suggested that “race and law cannot be clearly separated” and that “race is always a factor,” could not propose how that factor could be accounted for in our legal system. By insisting on all-black juries for black defendants? By creating racial proportionality in conviction rates? I doubt it.

The “experts,” suddenly sporting an unusually high proportion of black talking heads, mostly dragged out their old soapboxes: the anti-gun soapbox, the racial justice soapbox, the hate-crime soapbox. There are merits in each of their positions, but even collectively they did not amount to a “conversation on race.”

When television’s hosts, guests and panels of citizens convene, almost always after a “tragedy,” catastrophe or sensational trial – remember O.J. Simpson? – they reveal their (by now) learned inability to confront the issue they are meant to confront. The experts repeat the stance on the issue we have come to expect. Isn’t that why liberals watch Rachel Maddow on MSNBC and conservatives listen to Bill O’Reilly on Fox News?

And those panels of ordinary citizens? They are on their best behavior when on television, as they usually are when talking to pollsters. They mimic the solemn faces and goody-two-shoes tone of their hosts and generally say what they think they are supposed to say. They nod; they agree to agree or to disagree.

If Americans want to have a conversation on race – or on class, or finance capitalism – they’d have to be honest and say what they think and feel. If you want to find out what that is, read the comments in your local paper when a story appears with the mugshot of the young person arrested for murder in the robbery of a convenience store. Listen to people in airport lounges or at the supermarket or in the stands of a youth softball game. Their talk rarely resembles the staged “conversation” in TV studios.

And if the hosts and experts want to get at some pieces of the truth about race or class, they’d have to do what a consultant did while working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “Why do the Indians drink?” he was asked. “Because they are unhappy,” he responded. “And why are they unhappy?” He said: “Because we took their land.” Next question: “What would make them happy?” He answered: “Give them back their land.”

And he never consulted for the Bureau of Indian Affairs again. I’d bet that most of the folks in our media aren’t going to follow his example.

Salamon taught German literature and culture at several East Coast colleges, and served as staff reporter for the St. Louis Business Journal and as senior editor for Defense Systems Review. He has published three academic books and contributed articles to the Washington Post and the American Conservative.


Share our journalism