America’s summer of hate

From George Zimmerman to Paula Deen, KTVU's awful Asian jokes to "Big Brother," it's been one hot, racist summer

Topics: George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin, Paula Deen, Big Brother, Ann Coulter,

Years from now, when colleges offer courses on “Race Relations in the Early 21st Century,” and authors write the books on dark chapters in American history, they’re going to have a whole lot to say about the summer of 2013. The summer of our emboldened ignorance.

Ultimately, it was a jury of six that decided to acquit George Zimmerman, who shot the unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin to death last year. A jury of six women — five whites and one Latina. The rest of us in America didn’t cast a ballot, didn’t get to decide Zimmerman’s fate. And the case was, from a legal standpoint, complex. The jury was charged not with the duty of deciding whether George Zimmerman was a racist vigilante, but whether he was guilty of second-degree murder. As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in the Atlantic, it was a case with no eyewitnesses, and one in which the state ultimately “had no ability to counter [Zimmerman's] basic narrative.” The verdict reminds us that we live in a nation in which we’re commanded to presume innocence – even if the legal system does consistently, disproportionately punish African-Americans.

But if a legal analyst would say that the verdict in the Zimmerman trial was not entirely a failure of justice, that the jury was performing its duty to the best of its ability and rendered its decision entirely on the basis of the evidence presented – even if Martin’s death remains as senseless as it is outrageous — you still need only sniff around the immediate borders of the story to see how deep, how shockingly ugly and how unapologetically blatant the racism surrounding it goes. Look just as far as the reactions to the verdict Saturday night, the gleeful, unnervingly pleased ”In your face!” tone among the usual conservative d-bag suspects, the hasty, anxious reporting not of protest but of “sporadic vandalism.” Or, as a Daily Caller reader unsurprisingly wrote, “Let the race war being, whites have the guns. Bring in it on!”

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The Zimmerman verdict – and the reactions to it — didn’t occur in a vacuum. They happened in a time and place in which the prosecution’s greatest hope for a star witness, Rachel Jeantel, was ripped to shreds in the court of public opinion for being “ghetto trash.” After I wrote about Jeantel last month, I spent the next several days on the receiving end of some of the vilest emails I’ve ever received. And yet I could shrug them off with a click of the delete button. I still had the luxury of walking around in my fair skin, protected in a way that the Rachel Jeantels of America never are.

And as a white woman, I have had many of the same advantages that Paula Deen does. Deen, who has spent the summer making weak statements about how she doesn’t “condone” racism while swaggeringly insisting, “I is what I is, and I’m not changing.” Deen, who, let’s remember here, is the subject of a lawsuit not for her casual use of racial epithets or weird romantic vision of a distant era but for her behavior, for “patterns of disrespect and degradation of people that she deems to be inferior.”

As a white woman, I don’t have to put up with the attitudes of contestants on “Big Brother” who toss around slurs about their African-American housemates and whisper that Asians should shut up and “go make some rice.” As a white woman, I look not so different from KTVU reporter Tori Campbell, who on Friday unblinkingly rattled off a series of juvenile, insulting fake names for the pilots of Asiana crash from a teleprompter, who didn’t pause for even a moment to question their authenticity. That’s white privilege in action for you, right there.

Nobody’s ever called me the words that have been used to describe Trayvon Martin and Rachel Jeantel. Nobody’s ever confronted me with the nauseating ignorance that Paula Deen and the “Big Brother” contestants have displayed so effortlessly. I don’t have to worry that my daughters will ever be called “ghetto trash” or told to go make some rice. And there isn’t a goddamn thing that’s fair or right about that, nothing that makes any kind of sense at a moment in history we should be well past this garbage. Our pale skin and blue eyes mean that we don’t have to walk around in terror of that kind of anger and arrogant stupidity. But we live in a country that still permits it to thrive, one in which our divisiveness and fear are so poisonously self-evident in recent days that it takes my breath away. One in which a young man carrying a bag of Skittles can be shot and killed in the dark, and the man who snuffed out his life can get away with it. And the monsters can cheer “Hallelujah.” 

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

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