The Buzz

The Other Tragedy of Trayvon Martin

Among America’s most probing thinkers on race is Shelby Steele, senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and author of numerous books, including a 2007 volume called White Guilt. His April 5 Wall Street Journal piece on the Trayvon Martin episode cuts through a lot of the cant that unfortunately has surrounded that human tragedy in Sanford, Florida.

“Trayvon’s sad fate clearly sent a quiver of perverse happiness all across America’s civil rights establishment . . . and . . . the mainstream media,” wrote Steele, explaining that his death gave vindication to the “poetic truth” that these establishments live by—namely, the idea that America remains a reflexively racist society. But this poetic truth, says Steele, like “poetic license” in the literary world, “has a lot of lie in it.”

Some people cling to this lie out of nostalgia for the day when America truly was a reflexively racist society. Then, civil-rights activists were heroic figures confronting a dangerous establishment. They “stood on the highest moral ground” and were “historically transformative people.” But today’s activists—most notably, he says, the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton—can’t reach such elevated levels of moral standing without embracing the falsehood that today is no different from 1950s Alabama.

Before the 1960s, writes Steele, the black American identity was based on a common humanity, that race was an artificial, exploitive division between people. But afterward, “we took our historical victimization as the central theme of our group identity.” That has spawned, writes Steele, “a generation of ambulance-chasing leaders,” bent on manipulating white guilt by perpetuating the myth of ongoing racism of an earlier day. They want to be heroic figures, too.

Hence, says Steele, the tragedy of Trayvon Martin is not in the possibility that white racism played a part in his death; after all, blacks today are nine times more likely to be killed by other blacks than by whites. No, says Steele, “the tragedy is in the lustfulness with which so many black leaders, in conjunction with the media, have leapt to exploit his demise for their own power.”

This is powerful stuff—and provocatively smart.