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Pre Post-Racial America

August 5, 2013

When George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida on February 26, 2012, social media picked up the story early.  Newspapers in the state were the first traditional press to report.  The Orlando Sentinel had a brief report on February 29 and the Miami Herald started on March 8.  Reuters picked it up on March 7, when Martin’s family started to make it public that they wanted Zimmerman arrested.  It was not a particularly big topic anywhere until the third week of March however, when the 911 audio tapes of Zimmerman were released.  It then became the first story of the year to attract more attention than the Presidential election.  At the time, 30% of those surveyed by Pew Research were following the story more closely than any other.  (Ultimately, according to Pew Research’s index, it was the eleventh top story of the year.)  4-3-12-1

African Americans watched the story unfold with more interest than whites.  Pew Research reported that 58% of blacks were watching this more closely than any other news topic, compared to only 24% of whites.  Similarly, a Gallup poll showed that a combined 80% of blacks were following the reporting about Martin and Zimmerman either very closely (52%) or somewhat closely (28%) compared to 59% of all others polled.  In that same poll, 72% of African Americans said that racial bias was a major factor in the events that led up to the shooting incident, but only 31% of non-blacks responded to the survey question that way.

1_-_Themes_Lead_1The initial conversation differed in social and mainstream outlets.  On Twitter, outrage at Zimmerman and cries for justice (21%) and sympathy for Martin’s family (19%) were the main points.  Cable TV and talk radio shows focused on gun laws (17%).  Racial issues (15%) and demands for justice (13%) were the blog themes during that period.

The cable TV companies emphasized different perspectives.  MSNBC mostly discussed gun control, Florida’s laws and race issues in Sanford and CNN and Fox News stressed Martin’s past and statements about Zimmerman’s defense.  Those companies also made different decisions about the amount of time to dedicate to the story.  Per Pew Research, MSNBC and CNN provided 49% and 40% of their news airtime to the story, respectively, while Fox News devoted only 15% of their news programming. reported that during March 15-25, 2012, Trayvon Martin was mentioned 500 times and 350 times on CNN and MSNBC, but only 100 times on Fox News.

Right from the start, the story exemplified our country’s political and racial divides and this too was reflected in the Pew Research poll.   Approximately month after the sad affair, 56% of Republicans and 43% of whites surveyed believed that there was too much media coverage.  Only 25% and 16% of Democrats and blacks responded as such.

7-22-2013-1Many Americans watched the July 2013 trial, in which Zimmerman was acquitted, with interest.  The economy, Rolling Stone magazine’s irresponsible glamour shot of the Boston Marathon murderer, the Detroit bankruptcy filing and other stories barely registered that week, according to Pew Research.  The trial was the top topic of conversation for 43% of those surveyed, with most of those respondents saying that they followed the verdict very closely.  Once again, racial divides presented themselves.  African Americans overwhelmingly (86%) disapproved of the verdict, while 49% of whites were satisfied and 58% of Hispanics were dissatisfied.  A little over a third of those surveyed believed that the case raised important race issues that need to be discussed, but there is a variance here also.  African Americans overwhelmingly expressed this view (78%), Hispanics less so (47%) and whites quite a bit less (28%).

MLK speech 8-63

The gathering for MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, August 28, 1963

This month, we will again remember how Martin Luther King urged us to do better with his inspiring and beautiful “I Have a Dream” speech.  Fifty years ago, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of a quarter million people, King looked forward to a country devoid of racial prejudice.   He spoke of a time and place when his “…four little children will one day live in a nation where  they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their  character.”  But as the survey attitudes above show, we have not reached a post-racial America.  The roots to these issues are deep and it seems that we have a long way to go.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a member of every President’s administration from John Kennedy through Gerald Ford and later a U.S. Senator from New York, studied the issue of poverty and race for the U.S. Department of Labor in 1965.  In June of this year, The Urban Institute, in a study titled The Moynihan Report Revisited, concluded that there is much left to do to resolve ongoing social and economic disparities in our country.

In 1965’s The Negro Family: The Case for National Actions, Daniel Patrick Moynihan described a “tangle of pathologies” –from disintegrating families to poor educational outcomes, weak job prospects, concentrated neighborhood poverty, dysfunctional communities, and crime–that would create a self-perpetuating cycle of deprivation, hardship, and inequality for black families. Today, although social progress has created opportunities for many members of the black community, the United States still struggles with many of the problems Moynihan identified. If we don’t enhance economic opportunities and social equity for black families, we may spend the next 50 years lamenting our continued lack of progress.

The death of Trayvon Martin and the ensuing media coverage has captured the attention of many Americans, from Sanford, Florida to the White House.  People across the country have thought about what they would have done if they were in Martin or Zimmerman’s shoes that awful night.  I present to you two.  Author Barbara Monier writes about how her neighborhood and hometown of Evanston, Illinois is now having to consider this in a very real and serious way.  Nearby Chicago is plagued with crime and violence, so it would be no surprise if there is heightened anxiety in Evanston.  Michael Heyer writes about our country on his blog Faith and Magic.  He tells us about Martin and Zimmerman starting from the beginning, a few days later, then here, right before the trial, and places in between.

From → America

  1. Really well done. Even without referencing ME. But thanks much for that.


  2. Thank you, Barbara. As I said, your post is quite powerful. I hope that current tensions in your neighborhood are resolved.


  3. I’ve been reading about the March on Washington 50 years ago (8/28/63) and the Race Card Project. Participants in the March were asked to describe their experiences in 6 words or less. It’s not easy to boil things down to six words or less. One of my favorites – “A terrible, unnecessary barrier against love.” The music was apparently incredibly moving that day as well. We shall overcome!


    • KC – I had not heard about M. Norris’ Race Card Project and just now took a look. You found a good six-word “essay”. Many of them are emblematic of the divide and some downright neon without any ambiguity. But I guess the nature of the project leads to that.


  4. As a former metro print journalist, my publicist appreciates your in-depth analysis. There can never be too much media coverage if communities such as Evanston, Ill, are taking preventative action. thank you for your post, LMA


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