Newt Gingrich, as usual, is appalled. He is appalled because President Barack Obama, speaking on Friday, showed empathy for the parents of Trayvon Martin, the black 17-year-old gunned down in Sanford, Florida, last month, whose killer, George Zimmerman, still walks free. He is appalled because, in doing so, the president acknowledged not only that there is such a thing as race, but that different races have unique experiences living in America. He is appalled because this sort of acknowledgement is, to him, the same thing as racism.
The first thing Obama said, though, was that it was “absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this,” which is not particularly controversial. The generally accepted version of the events of February 26 has Trayvon, who was in Sanford visiting family, going to buy Skittles and iced tea during halftime of the NBA All-Star Game and being spotted by neighbourhood watch captain Zimmerman on his way back home. Zimmerman called 911 to report the supposedly suspicious teen, claimed Trayvon looked “like he’s on drugs,” said something that sounded a lot like “fucking coons” and mentioned that “these assholes, they always get away.” Against the wishes of the 911 responder, Zimmerman pursued him, a scuffle ensued, and Zimmerman shot Trayvon dead. When police arrived on the scene, Zimmerman told them he fired in self-defence, which, in accordance with Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” laws, was plausible enough for the officers to release Zimmerman without a charge and to decline to test him for drugs or alcohol. Zimmerman, who had called the police at least 46 times previously to report suspicious people in his neighbourhood before killing Trayvon, has still not been charged.
So, yes, a thorough investigation seems like a good place to start. But Obama went on to speak more personally, saying that when he thought about the shooting, he thought about his own kids, and that, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” This was Obama standing with the grieving parents of a boy whose horrible end the local police had apparently been loath to give a second look. This was Obama telling them, to the extent that he could imagine what they were going through, that as a parent and as a black American, he understood that their boy’s death deserved the dignity of at least a proper investigation.
This was what Newt Gingrich told Sean Hannity’s radio listeners, later on Friday, that he found so “appalling.”
And not just appalling, but “disgraceful.” Gingrich, admitting the shooting was a tragedy, said it was not “a question of who that young man looked like. … We should all be horrified no matter what the ethnic background.” Obama, of course, never suggested otherwise. No one did. But Gingrich marched along, wondering aloud if “the president is suggesting that if it had been a white boy who had been shot, that would be okay because it didn’t look like him?”
The worst thing you can do to a person like Gingrich is force him to think an unpleasant thought about himself. It doesn’t even have to be intentional. It’s the same reflex that brings up bile in some Canadians when the residential school system arises in conversation, and causes them to take grand offence at the twin notions that not only is restitution perhaps still due for some of the people who suffered, but that this is something we should still be talking about. After all, isn’t this tired history? How dare we punish the people of today for the sins of the past? It was a different time back then, their pain and plight has been noted, but it’s time to move on, isn’t it? Their future is their own, and we don’t owe them any more handouts. And most importantly, isn’t it time to stop making us feel so guilty?
You’ll see the same reaction to an ongoing National Post series (full disclosure: I work there as an editor) investigating teenage mothers in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s who were coerced into giving their children up for adoption – or worse, were told their children were stillborn, only to have them given away without their consent. There is a contingent of onlookers for whom this appears to be nothing but a cash grab by those now adult mothers, a way to capitalize on ancient indiscretions, to judge a different era by today’s standards, to turn their misery into an industry. The statute of limitations we just decided upon about this patch of history we just learned existed has expired, now please don’t bring it up again, because in our brains it feels like you are blaming us and that is wrong, even more wrong than having your child stolen from you, which you really have to stop bringing up because it is not helping anyone.
And then there is Gingrich, who cannot have a rational discussion about race, or even accept it as a suitable subject of conversation. It’s why he thinks that when Barack Obama, maybe the most powerful black man in history, shows solidarity with and compassion for a black family at the centre of the world’s media gaze for the most nightmarish of reasons, it is “nonsense dividing this country up.” It doesn’t matter what the sentiment must have meant to Trayvon’s family. The important thing is what it made a man like Gingrich feel – a man who just last week insisted Robert De Niro apologize after the actor made what was very clearly a joke at a Democratic fundraiser about whether it was “too soon” for America to have a white first lady. “I think the country is ready for a new first lady,” Gingrich said at the height of humourlessness, clutching his pearls, “and [De Niro] doesn’t have to describe it in racial terms.”
We don’t know if Trayvon Martin’s killing was racially motivated. If no charges are laid against George Zimmerman, we may never know. The story, however, is just beginning; an injustice acknowledged is not an injustice corrected. The conversation is not over just because Newt Gingrich wants to stop talking about it.
Jordan Ginsberg is a writer in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter at @jordanginsberg.