The murder of Trayvon Martin has revealed (or rather “drawn attention to”) a host of ugly truths about American society and the pathologies of folks who’d try and spin brute facts into a greasy web of victim-blaming. David Brothers did an an exceptional (and intensely personal) job at covering some the most salient points, glaucoma so I’m going to focus on one aspect of the tragedy which cuts across something I’d been contemplating in my study of post-WW2 American history.
The idea that Martin’s killer was racially motivated was pooh-poohed by some (typically right-wing) pundits who insisted that Barack Obama’s electoral elevation to president meant we lived in a “post-racial” society, bulimics one where racism — institutional or otherwise — no longer existed as a widespread, policy-dictating phenomenon.
Putting aside the glaringly obvious untruth of this statement — as evinced by (but by no means limited to) Rep. Peter King’s bizarre hearings on Islam, countless documented incidents of racial profiling, and Arizona’s ongoing racial derangement syndrome — the conflation between “milestone” and “ultimate objective” has been one of America’s more historically problematic behaviors.
I do not discount the importance of historical milestones on the long and winding road to Where We Ought To Be. They serve as rallying points, morale boosters, and proof we’re making headway. I’m glad I’ve lived to see marriage equality become a hard-fought reality, if only in certain states for now. Obama’s election was a significant moment in American history on multiple levels. As cherished and gratifying as these victories are, however, they represent battles won, not the end of the struggle.
The American dream is a semi-secular form of Calvinism where national affiliation is associated with a passkey to Great Things. We’ve all heard the stories — “A land where a shoeshine boy can become a billionaire!” “A country where the son of a dirt farmer can become president!” We count the hits and ignore both the multitude of misses. We overlook contextual and circumstantial privileges which contribute to the successes in favor of crediting the mythic power of the land itself.
As result, Americans suffer from a habitual delusions of granduer coupled to a exaggerated sense of entitlement. Liberal, conservative, moderate — it makes no difference, “We’re Americans, we can do anything” has become the national mantra. There’s nothing wrong with a “can do” attitude to get the masses motivated, except when the will becomes confused for the way…and the way has been rooted in specific, impermanent historical circumstances.
Like a gambler who presumes a astonishing winning steak signifies some preternatural ability, the “American spirit” is viewed as a totem for guaranteed success. Sure, one is expected to “work hard” and “stay focused,” but failure is a reflection of one’s own moral weakness (or a convenient scapegoat), not upon the formula itself. From the American standpoint, all problems are inherently and — most importantly — decisively solvable. More intractable issues involving nuanced solutions inevitably boil down to questions of “vision,” where the simplest solution is habitually seen as the best one.
It’s a worldview which either rejects long-term planning or subverts it with faith-based projections. “Real estate values will ALWAYS go up, forever and ever, amen!” It’s no wonder that “done and done” based on high profile milestones has become the template for problem solving. This amendment freed the slaves! Let’s go to Disneyland!”
Keeping up with the educational standards curve means more than the initial contruction and staffing for a new school building (or lobbing an unfunded mandate at cash-strapped districts). Maintaining infrastructure means more than trusting that bridges designed to last for fifty years will last for a hundred. “Conquering space” means more than tooling around on the moon for a couple of years before slashing budgets to the bone. Healing the country’s racial/class divide will take more than some constitutional amendments, court cases, federal laws and a watershed election.
These things take effort — the dedicated, conscientious effort marked by the participation of all Americans. There are no quick fixes, only the need to accept that this shit will take time, work, and adequate resources. It’s one thing to feel all tingly inside when Michael Douglas gives his “democracy required homework” speech in The American President, it’s another to put that into practice and roll with the flurry of punches outside the comfy, vicarious confines of Hollywood fantasy.
Americans can no longer afford to assume “greatness” as a given or treat real progress as a windfall (one, to be sure, purchased with the toil and conviction of a dedicated few) entirely circumscribed by historic milestones.
We’ve got to roll those boulders uphill ourselves, accepting that the those few inches we cover will make a difference for later generations who will take up the load.
Not because you’re noble. Not because you’re special. Because it’s the right thing to do, and that’s all that matters.