Cosby is right that Trayvon Martin's murder is partly about US gun culture, but his overlooking racism is dangerous wishfulness
Actor Bill Cosby has insisted the Trayvon Martin case is primarily a problem of America's prevalent gun culture. Photograph: Paul Morigi/WireImageIn the last decade, legendary comedian, film and television star Bill Cosby has transformed himself from America's dad into a cultural critic determined to whip black America into shape. It started with what is now known as the "pound cake" speech, an address he gave in 2004 at an NAACP ceremony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Brown v Board of Education US supreme court decision. Cosby took the time to chastise black Americans for what he viewed as failures, including the use of Ebonics, the number of single-parent households, wasteful spending and conspicuous consumption, and certain sartorial choices.
The most memorable line, the one that earned the speech its name, found Cosby almost excusing the violence perpetrated on black people by the police when he said:
"People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! And then we all run out and are outraged, 'The cops shouldn't have shot him.' What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?"
There was much backlash over his comments, many feeling as though Cosby had gone out of his way to berate and embarrass low-income black people for lack of personal responsibility, while refusing to address the ways in which the issues of racism and class have impacted their lives. This line of thinking is not new, nor specific to Cosby, as calls for personal responsibility have been integral parts of black liberation struggles from the time of Reconstruction – made most famous by Booker T Washington.
But Cosby dismissed the role racism plays in our post-civil rights world in a way that is potentially dangerous. He's doing the same now in his public remarks on the killing of Trayvon Martin.
In an interview with the Washington Times, Cosby was asked whether Martin's death at the hands of George Zimmerman was about race. He replied:
"Without a gun, I don't see Mr Zimmerman approaching Trayvon by himself … The power-of-the-gun mentality had him unafraid to confront someone. Even police call for backup in similar situations."
Cosby went on to say:
"When you carry a gun, you mean to harm somebody, kill somebody."
Reiterating this stance on NBC's Meet the Press, Cosby said:
"It's about the gun … guns in our country."
Cosby, of course, has a particular sensitivity to the issue of guns and gun violence, since his son, Ennis Cosby, was shot and killed during a robbery attempt in 1997. Undoubtedly, there is a need to have an honest discussion about the role guns play in our society, when you consider, as Gary Younge reports, there are approximately 90 guns for every 100 people in the US and more than 85 people a day are killed by them. Cosby's concern should be all of ours.
But his downplaying the role race played in the killing of Trayvon Martin is not something we can afford. From the outset of the national outrage, Zimmerman's father attempted to dismiss any charge of discrimination, or profiling, pointing to his son's ethnic background and mentoring of black children as refutation of racial prejudice. Self-appointed black friend Joe Oliver became a surrogate on cable news, trying to absolve Zimmerman of any charges of racism.
It has never mattered whether Zimmerman personally is a racist, but from what we can hear of his 911 call and can establish from his pattern of reporting suspicious figures in the neighborhood where he shot and killed Martin, it's clear that he operated on racial stereotypes. When calling to alert authorities to Martin's presence, Zimmerman told the 911 dispatcher that he looked suspicious, like "he's on drugs or something"; but he had little other information about him other than he was black. The indignation in the phrase "these assholes, they always get away", Zimmerman muttered as he left his vehicle to pursue Martin suggests this wasn't just about Martin, but about all of those people, whether black, teen, tall, skinny, hoodie-wearing or what have you, whom Zimmerman had determined were criminals. And when you consider that Zimmerman had a history of calling 911 to report black males, including once finding a juvenile aged 7-9 suspicious, it isn't hard to figure out who the perceived threats were in his mind.
What Cosby, and others who would have us focus less on Martin's race and more on other factors contributing to his death, would prefer is that we operate as a color-blind society. But if we choose not to see race, then it is impossible to see actual racism – and there is plenty of it to go around. When we ignore that, it makes it possible for Newt Gingrich to feign outrage at President Barack Obama's observation that if he had a son, "he would look like Trayvon," and suggest the president would not care if this were to have happened to a white teenager. The real problem is that this likely would not have happened to a white teenager, yet is a reality young black Americans live with daily.
There isn't a single issue at play here. Yes, this is about a culture of guns. It is about the "Stand Your Ground" law, that may still provide a viable defense for Zimmerman. This is about the ineptitude of the Sanford, Florida police department.
Those issues, though, can be resolved in Congress, statehouses and courts. What killed Trayvon cannot be legislated away. It is the product of centuries of vicious messaging about the nature of black men. As well-meaning as color-blind politics may be, if it cannot address that reality, it will always fail.
It was Malcolm X who said:
"If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, that's not progress. If you pull it all the way out, that's not progress. The progress comes from healing the wound that the blow made. They haven't even begun to pull the knife out, much less heal the wound. They won't even admit the knife is there."
We can't afford to act like we don't see the knife. The wound won't heal if we continue to look away.