As questions remain as to the role race played in the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and the decision-making by local authorities in the aftermath, the right is using race-baiting tactics to silence any broader conversation about racism and stereotyping.
More than a month after the shooting, the facts about the shooting remain unclear. What is clear, however, is that the right-wing media's modus operandi when it comes to racial issues hasn't changed. Now that prominent black Americans are singling out race as a reason the 17-year-old is dead, conservative media figures are out in full force with what can only be described as ferocious backlash against those they deride as "professional race baiters."
Here is a recent cover of Rupert Murdoch's conservative New York Post, bearing the headline, "Trayvon Hoodwink: Tragedy hijacked by 'race hustlers' ":
New York state Sens. Kevin Parker, Bill Perkins, and Eric Adams are shown in the photo above wearing "hoodies in solidarity" in Albany, while protesting the "demonization of minorities by police." The website url for the accompanying NY Post article read in part "race_buzzards_circle_trayvon."
This is the way the right-wing media are treating those who have dared raise the possibility that race might have played a role in Martin's death. They have been smeared as "race baiters" and "race hustlers," and are identified as "racially divisive." In other words, they are "playing the race card."
On Fox News, conservative activist Alveda King blasted Sharpton and Jackson for fomenting "anger and fear," adding that "we must answer this nonviolently, not with rage and not with anger -- not by playing the race card."
Conservative columnist Thomas Sowell wrote of Sharpton and others: "Playing with racial polarization is playing with fire." He added:
Race hustlers who hype paranoia and belligerence are doing no favor to minority youngsters. There is no way to know how many of these youngsters' confrontations with the police or others in authority have been needlessly aggravated by the steady drumbeat of racial hype they have been bombarded with by race hustlers.
When President Obama responded to the tragedy by saying, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," he was accused of "using racial code." Conservative pundit and Fox News contributor Michelle Malkin wrote that Obama was "all too willing to pour gas on the fire" of the story.
The Daily Caller's Tucker Carlson, also a Fox News contributor, claimed Obama made the incident "a simple parable about white racism." He added: "This is not a conversation that we ought to be hav-- that political figures ought to be weighing in on right now at all."
Fox News contributor Tamara Holder concluded: "I think the blacks are making this more of a racial issue than it should be."
All of this then gives rise to a question: When is a good time to weigh in on race relations?
It is a debate worth having, especially in light of the right-wing media's response to Trayvon Martin. In their attempt to prove that Martin wasn't innocent -- that he was in fact the "aggressor" -- they have played every racially insensitive card in their arsenal, including trolling white supremacist websites for material. They have elevated a fringe, black separatist hate group and made its members a central part of the story, and in so doing have deceived the public into thinking the group is a) relevant, and b) part of the progressive mainstream.
When media figures engage in racially charged speech and invoke demeaning and harmful racial stereotypes, shouldn't that prompt a discussion on what animates such vitriol?
But whenever any attempt is made to do so, conservative media figures assume their default position: hit back against anyone who so much as brings up a claim of racial insensitivity. "Playing the race card" is still a favorite rhetorical device employed by those on the right who try to silence any discussion of racial issues or whenever a whisper of critical race theory arises.
All of this underscores the fact that a conversation on race relations, on structural racism, is sorely needed.
In his New York Times column on Trayvon Martin, Charles Blow wrote:
This case has reignited a furor about vigilante justice, racial-profiling and equitable treatment under the law, and it has stirred the pot of racial strife.
As the father of two black teenage boys, this case hits close to home. This is the fear that seizes me whenever my boys are out in the world: that a man with a gun and an itchy finger will find them "suspicious." That passions may run hot and blood run cold. That it might all end with a hole in their chest and hole in my heart. That the law might prove insufficient to salve my loss.
That is the burden of black boys in America and the people that love them: running the risk of being descended upon in the dark and caught in the cross-hairs of someone who crosses the line.
On NPR, discussing "why so many people saw themselves in Trayvon Martin," Johns Hopkins University political science professor Lester Spence said: "Every moment I'm on that campus, I carry kind of the race with me and that causes me to have to think about how I carry myself given that there are not a number of -- a significant number of African-Americans on campus anyway. I have to make sure that I'm dressed appropriately, you know, that people know that I am a professor, that I'm actually supposed to be there."
On NBC, MSNBC anchor Tamron Hall spoke of her experiences, saying, "I am followed in department stores. I have walked in dressed professionally or dressed in jeans, and I have walked into stores, and instantly, security is on my back."
On Fox News, decrying comments by black activists in raising race as an issue, C.L. Bryant complained that "in the year 2012, we're still having conversations that we could in fact talk about in the '30s and '40s and '50s." The right-wing media's response to the Trayvon Martin case and any topic dealing with race may be one reason why.