If racism becomes a forbidden word, the debate about it will never move into the 21st century (Guest blog by Janine Griffiths)

Racism has become almost like a dirty word in our society. But not for the right reasons.

Nowadays far too many accusations of racism invite angry responses of being too “politically correct” or “oversensitive”. Such responses can be expected even if such accusations are later proven false. The counter-accusation of “being too pc” or “pandering to minorities” have been levied against those who have fought against racism since the height of segregation in America and the apartheid era. And perhaps it is a mark of progress in our society when even the racists themselves go to great lengths to deny they are racists, or that their actions may have been influenced by racial discrimination. Take George Zimmerman for example, who over recent weeks became infamous over the shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin after following him against police orders because he looked ‘suspicious’. It is one of the latest in a long line of racially charged cases that has so successfully split the public both over here and in the states right down the middle.

Some say George Zimmerman is innocent and acted in self-defence. Others say he is a racist gun nut who shot dead the black teenager in cold blood. The media has had its two pounds of flesh too. Some media outlets have condemned the killing and declared George Zimmerman guilty as charged. Others have instead opted to condemn Trayvon Martin after dragging up details of his alleged marijuana suspension from high school, and questioning the way he has purportedly presented himself on social media.

Then to top it all off extremists from both sides of the fence have joined in the feeding frenzy. The New Black Panther party – who have not only gained unpopularity with the majority of law-abiding American’s but have also been widely condemned by the surviving members of the original Black Panther Party – have offered up a $10,000 bounty to anyone who can catch Zimmerman dead or alive. Neo-Nazi groups in the US have also put in their two pence worth by patrolling the streets of Sanford, America in nice shiny black boots to “make sure” that the white residents of the area feel safe.

Conservative blogs and websites surrounding key figures like Glenn Beck and Dick Cheney began calling for the country to ‘wait for the facts’ on Twitter. But they did this by implying – without much evidence – that Martin was a criminal.

The hashtag #teamdueprocess was then forced into an embarrassing admission that a photo of a young black man sticking two fingers up to the camera and wearing his pants down was not in fact Trayvon Martin and therefore had no relevance to the case. But it was left up anyway to make a point.

And in a startling prophecy that would put mystic meg to shame, the Conservative Review has also branded the teen ‘a criminal thug on his way to a life in prison’. How they could possibly predict that is a mystery to me.

Beck’s website, The Blaze, had further tried to muddy the waters by speculating again without much evidence that Martin could have been suspended from school for possessing drugs, sexually harassing women or arson. As if any of that had an influence on the fact that he got shot after buying a dangerous bag of skittles and iced tea, which may have been used in terrorist activity.

At the end of last month a white supremacist hacktivist who has proudly named himself ‘Klanklannon’ took up the work of Cheney’s Caller and leaked private messages he claimed belonged to Martin. The hacker invited people to log into Martin’s gmail account and see for themselves, having kindly changed the password to ‘niggerniggernigger’.

Then, in the middle of it all you have those who simply say that the failure to arrest George Zimmerman and investigate it thoroughly to the satisfaction of all parties is the real story here. And I have to agree. Perhaps we don’t have the full story here. Maybe there is more to all of this than meets the eye. And of course, as the above examples have shown that the mainstream media, by and large has been neither helpful nor neutral. But when you hear whispers among supposedly well-meaning and impartial people, including the Attorney General in the US who claimed that there shouldn’t even have been an arrest or investigation into the case, then that old dirty word rears its head up again. When you have online bloggers and sofa warriors stating that George Zimmerman’s claims that he acted in self-defence should have just been taken at face value and the fact that somebody died as a result doesn’t count, well then it is easy to see why so many young black men are “paranoid”. The cause of Zimmerman’s paranoia however, has yet to be determined.

I would only add that the conflicting police reports at the time are a cause for concern. As is the fact that the decision not to arrest George Zimmerman at the time was taken after Zimmerman’s father “made a few calls” which resulted in the state prosecutor coming to the police station to persuade the lead detective not to arrest Zimmerman.
There are many who say that there needs to be a “conversation” about race in America. They claim that ethnic minorities have had it their own way for too long, and that it is about time they stopped stomping their feet and complaining about and dare I say it….racism. There are many in the UK who emulate such sentiments and call for similar “debates” about multiculturalism – another dirty word.

When a case comes up in the news which exposes institutional racism against minorities, as the Stephen Lawrence case in England did over the last decade, usually the “conversation” is diverted to an example or statistic of a crime involving a black person. The truth is we as a society have been having these one-sided conversations for a very long time. These conversations, which are often influenced by the media have lead to anger, bitterness, and horrific “revenge” and hate crimes perpetrated against both black and white people in the US and UK. It has also led to Guantanamo-style prisons, the loss of liberty and tin-pot dictatorships all over the world.

Whenever we come to accept the childish “us against them” “black-white” or “they started it” mantra opportunistically embraced by biased reporting, self-interest groups and political pundits then we must also accept the consequences. Perhaps those consequences inevitably involve the passive acceptance of laws and violence against our perceived enemies and then eventually against us. What a dangerous conversation indeed.

I say it is time to move the conversation to the 21st century. Rather than denying the existence of racism or other prejudices that continue to embarrass our civilisation, perhaps there should be a renewed focus on solutions that identify cause and effect. By solutions, I am not talking about ones which will benefit or blame the black race. Or the white race. Or the Latinos or [insert favourite racial group here.]

What I refer to is something that is not immediately ‘clear’ or simple or downright lazy such as “deport them” “take away guns” “kill them” “secure our borders” “bring out more laws…”.

Sure, let’s have that conversation about racism, but without the political shamans, ‘thinktanks’, skinheads, or panthers. But a conversation with proposed solutions that would be apparent even if the skin tone or racial identity of the people it affected were neither known nor suspected.

Perhaps if Zimmerman had initiated such a conversation Trayvon would still be alive today. And maybe he was acting in self-defence. Maybe Trayvon was. Nobody really knows what went on yet except the two young men involved. But the day we start saying that it’s ok to kill an unarmed person in “self-defence” without being arrested or questioned in any way is a very dark day indeed. And when we condemn or exonerate such a person based on the information filtered through a ridiculously partisan media, we ourselves open ourselves up to the possibility of living up to the ideals of that old dirty word – racism. This then leads on to other dirty words like violence, war, conflict or shooting somebody because they look different.

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