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A nation still divided

Published 10:27pm Tuesday, July 16, 2013

One thing becomes crystal clear in the days following a Florida jury’s decision to absolve George Zimmerman of criminal responsibility in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin: Americans have a long way to go in the matter of race relations.

America, the nation, has come far since the end of the Civil War, when the shameful practice of slavery was finally put to an overdue end. The nation has come far since the days of Jim Crow, when black people were subjected to dehumanizing laws under which the color of their skin limited their ability to achieve and live fruitful lives. The country has come far since the civil rights era, when fire hoses and National Guardsmen were turned against citizens merely marching for the right to be treated as equals.

For evidence of just how far we’ve come, one need look only to Suffolk City Hall, where a woman who identifies herself as black serves as city manager, where three men who similarly self-identify sit on the City Council. For evidence of how far the nation has come, look to the White House, where a man who identifies himself as black holds the most powerful political position in the world. None of those things would have been conceivable just 75 years ago.

But the death and its aftermath of young Trayvon Martin proves that individual Americans still have much work to do before the nation can be said to have truly moved on from its divided and divisive history.

There is evidence that Zimmerman and Martin each had bigoted views about the other. But that evidence does not imply that institutional racism exists in America. Zimmerman, a light-skinned Hispanic man, does not represent all white people or all Hispanic people, any more than Martin, who was black, represented all black people. Yet the case somehow has become a touchstone for the conflict between white America and black America and a source of evidence for individuals from both groups who seek to use it to prove their stereotypes about the other.

The situation has been exacerbated by a media that insists on seeing every story as a binary proposition and by national organizations that cannot move beyond the roles they once played in the struggle for civil rights. Those groups keep the pot of civil discontent boiling by looking at everything literally in terms of black and white, victim and oppressor.

There will come a day when Americans stop identifying themselves and one another in such binary terms. There will come a day when we are no longer “blacks” or “whites,” but simply “Americans.” That day must come. If it does not, George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin will forever be the faces of a divided, broken nation.

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