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Trayvon Martin and the Myth of Civil Rights in America

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The tragic and senseless killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida recently once more confirms that racism remains an ever-present corrosive in US society despite the election of the nation's first black president in 2008. Indeed it comes as a shocking rejoinder to those who, swept up in the symbolism of the event, temporarily lost sight of the ugly truth that continues to polarise American society.

Rather than signifying the culmination of Martin Luther King's dream of an America shorn of racism and prejudice, an America where men and women are not only created but also treated equal, Obama's election merely papered over the cracks for an all too brief moment. For in truth, much more than the Ivy League patina of opportunity, enterprise and dynamism with which the nation prefers to identify itself, America is defined by social and economic justice and the racism with which it is closely connected.

But in Obama's story liberal America found the neat and tidy denouement to the civil rights movement of the sixties it had long craved. And in a country reared on a diet of Hollywood happy endings it was a story which gained huge traction, allowing the millions who supported and elected the first black president to suspend disbelief.

Given the banal regularity with which such incidents take place in towns and cities across America, the facts of this particular case hardly seem to matter. They are a product of the demonisation and criminalisation of young black men in a society in which they occupy out of all proportion to their number the bulk of the nation's prison population, a population that now stands at over two million. They are also born of gun laws that are more relevant to the frontier era of the 18th century than an advanced society in the 21st.

However, the unconscionable aspect of Martin's killing is that the man that shot him, George Zimmerman, a self appointed neighborhood watch captain and one of the vast army of wannabe cops who seek the next best thing working in the multi-billion dollar US security industry, was questioned by the police and released after he'd cited the state's 'stand your ground' law, which allows lethal force to be deployed in acts of self defence under certain circumstances. It is a law as bizarre and elastic in its hostage to interpretation as any you could possibly find in a part of the world where the Old Testament increasingly vies with the Constitution for supremacy when it comes to forming the basis of the judicial system.

Bad enough if Trayvon Martin had been the gang member, criminal, thug stereotype that American society has labelled young black men like him. Instead, he was making his way home to his father's girlfriend's house after a trip to a local grocery store. By all accounts the 17 year old was, in the parlance of the society in which he lived, a 'good kid'. He neither drank nor took drugs and did not have a criminal record. But he was a young black man out walking in Sanford, Florida wearing a hoodie. What more evidence did Zimmerman, a self evidently over zealous neighbourhood watch volunteer, need to apprehend him? And how easy would it have been for a man brought up in culture that has succeeded in sowing fear and revulsion of young men like Trayvon Martin to pull out a gun and shoot him dead?

Up to now the frontier spirit of the law in the South has stood behind these kinds of vigilante acts of justice, but in this instance a national backlash has erupted. It has seen protests marches, rallies, and forced prominent public figures up to and including the president himself to make public statements. Obama's recent remarks on the case were particularly poignant when he said "If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin."

What must have gone through the President's mind as he uttered this comment? Would he have contemplated his own lofty status as a beacon of progress and change in America, as has been proferred tirelessly since his election? Or would he have been stung with the realisation that in truth he sits at the apex of a society in which racism is so entrenched that his election to the White House was an aberration rather than evidence of progress in this regard?

Increasingly, it becomes clear that when it comes to the plight of black people in America Martin Luther King was wrong and Malcolm X was right. Particularly prescient was Malcolm's comment on MLK's Nobel Peace Prize, which in light of this tragic event could have been made yesterday in relation to Barack Obama, himself a recipient of the same award:

Malcolm said: "He got the peace prize, we got the problem.... If I'm following a general, and he's leading me into a battle, and the enemy tends to give him rewards, or awards, I get suspicious of him. Especially if he gets a peace award before the war is over."

It would be hard to find a black person in America today who would argue with this statement, never mind 40 years ago when it was first made.