The Trayvon Martin story continues to spark crackling debates on race and justice in America, and Saturday morning’s Up with Chris Hayes was a particularly compelling example. In a pair of segments devoted to anxiety over black peoples’ reaction to the case, things got heated, but thanks to kind and wise host Chris Hayes, never boiled over, but Georgetown University Professor Michael Eric Dyson made some devastating points about conservative reaction to the story.
The entire 20-minute segment is gold, but I want to start where Chris Hayes set the table for the discussion with some clips from 1960’s-era Meet The Press in which reporters grill Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., not about the violence and injustice he was fighting, but about whether he was worried about the possibility of “negro violence.”
It’s a sentiment that Hayes saw echoed in a recent New York Times column in which Bill Keller theorizes that “bellowing analogies to the racist nightmares of Birmingham and Selma, as the reliably rabble-rousing Reverend Sharpton has done — is just political opportunism. This is the kind of demagoguery that could prejudice a prosecution, or mobilize a mob.”
Following that clip, Michael Eric Dyson explained that “here we don’t talk about the offense itself, we talk about the response to the offense. We don’t talk about the injury, we speak about the people’s response to the injury,” and Huffington Post’s Amanda Terkel pointed out that “the response so far has been peaceful.”
Dyson interjected that there was more violence from white figures who responded to a loss of a Final Four game,” which reminded me that there was also more violence over the firing of Joe Paterno, and as I recall, it was a black guy who tried to calm them down.
That’s when The Washington Times‘ Kerry Picket brought up reliable bogeymen the New Black Panthers as evidence of…I’m not sure what. That black people are just four dudes who know how to sew patches and trek to Kinko’s away from becoming a riotous mob?
“Four of them,” Dyson responded. “Four of them. Name a member. Who is the head of the New Black Panther Party. That’s what i’m saying. You ain’t got it. that’s wrong. You are playing the race card.”
Picket talked about the $10,000 bounty the group placed on shooter George Zimmerman’s head, and fairly shouted to be heard over Dyson. “Look, if it was a white neo-Nazi group who ended up putting bounty onto anybody else’s head…”
Dyson countered that there have been threats against President Obama that haven’t been punished, and added “You are ignoring the offense and reinjuring the wounded.”
“No,” Picket shot back, “because we’re looking at a double standard…”
“You are right, it’s a double standard,” Dyson cut in. “White people get justice in America routinely, and their lives are taken seriously, whereas African-American and Latinos are dismissed, or at least marginalized. I agree with the double standard. And you are citing a marginal case of New Black Panthers whose names you can’t call.”
The exchange was a perfect illustration of the ways in which conservatives have tried to distract from the central injustice in this story, and the way that many white people of all political persuasion have a warped perception of it. In the heat of the moment, Dyson reversed it, but he deployed an excellent Biblical metaphor: “Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.”
Hayes cut in to refocus the conversation, observing that we’v e gone from a “general consensus that we have, yeah, a kid of 17-years-old buying Skittles and iced tea shouldn’t be shot and left dead,” to “all of a sudden, on conservative blogs it’s all about the New Black Panthers are doing this or that. And my question is why is that the important thing? Why is there this — just because Reverend Al Sharpton is doing something, why do conservatives feel the need to take the other side of the bet, why does it have to be the case that you sort of mobilize in favor of George Zimmerman, or point out double standards? Why not just leave well enough alone, and say, yeah, the guy should probably be arrested and let the trial work.”
After a commercial break, Picket responded that “What conservatives also saw in this circumstance was also the attack on gun rights.”
If that’s the case, it’s a pretty stealthy motivation. I’m not sure what Trayvon Martin’s Twitter feed or Jesse Jackson’s tardiness have to do with gun control. Either way, the fact that the right to shoot people more easily so quickly supersedes the right of Trayvon Martin to return home safely with his Skittles bespeaks a revolting set of priorities. The Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms, not to chase people around with them because we don’t think they look right.
The second segment was no less dramatic, but I have to commend Chris Hayes’ restraint at not just letting things get louder and more cable-clip-awesome. My impulse would always be to reach for the bag of bright orange media Cheez Waffies, but Hayes consistently eschews empty calories for wholesome, thoughtful nutrition. At first, I thought this was out of a discomfort with confrontation, but in this case, at least, he managed to distill this conflict into a fresh examination of the knee-jerk phenomenon.
I don’t buy the gun control excuse. The very first conservative rumblings about this story were reflexive denials that race was involved, but they really didn’t notice the story until President Obama spoke up about it. This isn’t about gun rights, it’s about hating Barack Obama, and the denial of racism that he ironically represents to them.
Here’s the clip, from MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes:
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