Can George Zimmerman lead to a Productive Conversation on Race?

One of the big issues in the past few weeks has been the criminal trial of George Zimmerman. In the aftermath of that trial there has been a great deal of argument about the rightness of the verdict and of the “stand your ground” law. To be honest I do not want to make comments on either of those issues. I have found a lot of the discussion on these issues to not be very productive. But there is one aspect that has risen after the Zimmerman trial that I do want to consider. After the Zimmerman trial, there has been a lot of talk about having a conversation on race. Some argue that unless we have this conversation then we will soon see more racial tension from another incident. I agree that unless those of different races communicate with each other that racial misunderstanding and alienation will continue. However, I am skeptical that this current call for a conversation will create that channel for communication.

I know something about having a conversation across different racial groups. I worked in the area of racial reconciliation for about fifteen years. I have done my share of the hard work it takes to create an atmosphere where real understanding develops between racial groups. I have seen conversations that helped create the type of racial healing some are talking about. Although I now work in a different research area and towards a calling distinctive from racial reconciliation, I will always have a heart to see our society overcome the racial divide that has troubled us for so long. So I should be very excited at the prospect of an emerging conversation on racial issues.

And yet I am not excited about this possible conversation. I am doubtful that it will do us any good. I am reminded that we have had other attempts to have a conversation on racial issues and those efforts do not seem to have helped. Merely wanting to have a conversation on racial issues is not a guarantee that we will create an atmosphere of racial understanding. In fact some conversations can actually make our racial situation worse. Why am I fearful that these calls for conversations may lead to a worsening racial situation? I believe it is because I have my doubts that these calls for conversations are for honest discourse on racial issues. It is important for parties to be willing to talk and listen to each other. Those consistently calling for a conversation do not talk about listening to others, but seem to focus just on what they want to say. I think this is how they see the talk on race going.

Activist: We need to talk about race
Person of different race: OK
Activist: You need to know A, B and C
Person of different race: Wow, I did not know all of this.
Activist: Since you now know A, B and C we need to do D and F for our society.

Person of different race: You are right. I am so glad we had this talk. You have taught me so much.
This may be the way people see the conversation going, but this is not the way an honest talk on race will go. People from different sides of the racial spectrum have contrasting, and deeply set, ideas about racial issues. They hope that when they tell others their point of view that other people will almost automatically accept their view as truth. What we often do not realize is that while our point of view seems logical to us that it is not that way for all individuals. Other people have their own concerns and interests which do not correlate to ours and if we really want to have this conversation then we had better be ready to honestly hear where other people are coming from. I am not convinced that those who want to have this conversation are ready to provide much respect for what others have to say and thus expect the one side conversation I stated above.

It is not fair that I just critique current efforts at a conversation on racial issues. I should also offer possible solutions that can set us up for this conversation. To that end I am grateful for the chance to have worked with Michael Emerson on Transcending Racial Barriers before I stopped doing research on racial issues. In that book we outlined principles and a process by which a productive racial conversation becomes possible. In that spirit I offer up these points for those who want a real interracial conversation that may result in breaking down racial barriers.

1) Define the problem – First thing that has to be done is that the issue of concern has to be carefully defined. Emerson and I suggest that we have to clarify what we want to discuss and keep our conversation in the context of that particular issue. We all have had discussions where we start on one subject and then jump to other subjects before we really finish discussing the subject at hand. We contend that our conversation on race will require the discipline necessary to stick to a given subject and a one subject at a time approach.

2) Identify what we have in common – There is no use in glossing over the differences between activists from different racial groups. But we also have important values in common with each other. Identifying what we agree on is an important way to start a meaningful conversation. Let us not assume the worst of those who disagree with us. They agree on certain values that we have and knowing this can help humanize those we want to have a conversation with.

3) Recognize our differences – Of course if we agreed on everything then all of this talk about needing a conversation would be meaningless. We have to be honest about why we differ from each other and why. At this point it is important to not only enunciate how we disagree with others, but why we have the concerns that we do. Clearly pointing out why we have developed the concerns we have is important so that all parties have a chance to understand why we have our points of contention.

4) Create solutions that answer the concerns of those we disagree with – Here is where our listening skills become very important. If the only thing we want to do is tell people how we feel and expect them to agree with us then our conversation will break down into yelling at each other. But if we have really been listening to the concerns of others then we will be in a position to articulate ways we can have our concerns addressed that also help those we are in conversation with to know that their concerns will be addressed as well. Of course our proposed solutions will tend to address our concerns more than the concerns of others. That is why we need the last step.

5) Find the compromised solution that best addresses the needs of all parties – If both African-American activists and white conservatives each develop solutions that address the concerns of the other group, those solutions are not likely to be the same. They will each develop solutions that more closely solve their concerns than the concerns of the other group. But they will be solutions more similar than the positions each started out with because there will have been an attempt to meet the needs of those in the other group. This will make it easier to combine those proposed solutions to come up with the compromise solution that they can live with. In any compromise no one will get all that they want, but hopefully all will receive enough so that they can accept and support the solution.

It is not surprising that individuals may not want to use such a system of compromise to set up a conversation. It takes hard work to truly listen to others and attempt to address their concerns. We would much rather try to force them to accept our perspectives as truth and to use political capital to force them to capitulate to our desires. But that is an effort that leads to failure. It will lead to failure because if we force others to capitulate to our plans without working with them to find a compromise solution, then we institutionalize enemies to our approach to racial issues. Those enemies are committed to defeating our approach because they will feel like they did not have a say in constructing the solutions we are implementing. This is why finding a solution through some type of mediated conversation that considers the ideas of all concerned interest groups is vital to creating a solution where everyone has some degree of skin in the game and will work to make the solution a success.

I realize that all of this is theoretical and that I have not offered a concrete example of how such a process can work. Furthermore, the space limitations of doing a blog do not allow me to fully fill in all the details of these steps. In our book Emerson and I do go through these steps with more details and illustrate with an example. My doubts about current calls for conversations emerge from my doubts that those calling for that conversation are willing to make those commitments. But hopefully providing this outline of the process will indicate the sort of commitments that have to be made for a real conversation that will move the needle forward on racial issues.

"LOL. There is no "closed door."Did you intend this for comedy?"

Why I am Supporting the American ..."
"I searched on google as "what kind of science is sociology" and turned up with ..."

Bill Nye, the “not-so-science” Guy
"I searched on google as "what kind of science is sociology" and turned up with ..."

Bill Nye, the “not-so-science” Guy
"Learned does not in any way demand a "degree" in any shape. As I said ..."

Bill Nye, the “not-so-science” Guy

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • The answer is no, it cannot lead to a productive conversation on race. First off, people don’t really want to hear what needs to be said on race, especially the black community. Second, the truth is that the Zimmerman/Martin encounter had very little – if any – to do with race. It was artificially built into a racial incident.

    • Dale

      Manny, I agree that people generally do not want to hear what needs to be said about race. It is difficult to set aside our own, strongly held, perspectives and listen attentively to someone who disagrees just as strongly.. Harder still is it to try to appreciate the elements of truth in what the other side is saying. This applies not only about race, but also to many “hot-button” issues, e.g. abortion.

      As you noted, a large segment of the population considered the Zimmerman/Martin shooting to be an example of racial injustice. Whether Zimmerman was racially motivated, or not, is probably a fruitless avenue of discussion. However, the shooting and the trial do highlight the ongoing racial divide in the US, and the need to have a difficult conversation about race.

      Few people are interested in stepping outside their comfort zone to have such a discussion and fewer still are able to pull it off. As George Yancey mentioned, such a discussion can not be a one-way street and will likely be uncomfortable to all participants. But the difficulty of the task doesn’t lessen the need to undertake it.

      • Black Racism

        Funny how folks point the finger at white folk and claim they dont want to talk about issues of race (while the black carry and hold the AG provided race cards that say right on them “As raciss as we wanna be and never to be questioned on our brand of hate”).
        Among the biggest reasons race relations have taken a major step back in the last five years after hundreds of millions of white folks voted for obama (seemingly to assuage their white guilt) TWICE, is that our current national executive leadership is a profesisonal race baiter and the media and the academics have bought into his race baiting from the start (starting with Obama saying he knew nothing about the case, but becuase his buddy the black guy from harvard was involved, he knew the white cop was guilty, to holder calling al whites cowards with respect to race, to the race baiting in the trayvon martin case (in which none of the facts were in, but obama had his racist opinion ready to fly off the tip of his tongue).
        After all the lies told about the trayvon martin case, I either think emit till was another race hoax or trayvon martin’s parents should be in jail for their many leis and for their felony child neglect (it is still a crime even if minorities do it)

    • Noah Smith

      “Especially the black community” I have this image of Manny wagging his finger and saying: “What you colored folks need to realise is…”

      • Black Racism

        I have this image of the black community teling the white community that a dialogue on race is needed and as soon as any white person speaks up, they are immediately called ‘racist’ whatever comes out of their mouth.
        Black people want a dialogue about race in which they are the only ones allowed to say anything (by definition, a dialogue involves at least two groups of people airing their views and the reason no dialogue on race ever occurs is becuase black people either want to provide white folks with their opinion or white folks arent allowed to express an opinion at all without major guilt trips

        • Noah Smith

          How about viewing members of the black community as individuals rather than as a monolithic bloc?

          • Black Racism

            Maybe African Americans will be able to do that some day with white people (I sure hope so).
            Many forget how many whites went down with them on those Southern marches for civil rights.
            Many forget how many whites DIED in the civil war (or how Many irish indentures servnats had ot pay for their trip to this country with their life in fighting for the North to End slavery.
            Many haters of whites forget the history of white bondage (sometimes at the hands of africans who like to pretend that blacks never held whites slaves).
            Many forget how many whites worked on the underground railroad to free slaves (at the risk of their own freedom).
            so, whlie you like to pretend all whites are racist and no blacks are racist, you can stick it.
            the reaosn there is no dialgue on race is cuz some dont want to here the truth (those that cant handle the truth).
            95% of all black teen deaths are by other black teens (whle the blacks are gettting all trayvon attitudes-thug like baby…live like a thug, die like one

      • Black Racism

        And after rachel jeantel was interviewed in front of the court, us whites were told over and over again that what we white folks need to understand is…
        you can have your racist black stuff if you like, but dont comre ot whites and tlel them to cut out their racism while blacks hang on their racism with both hands ancd feet and their teeff

        • Noah Smith

          I’ll take that as a “No” then shall I?

          • Black Racism

            You are saying you support black raicsm and shall not address it?
            I wont be worrying about white racism at all untli i see black taking the same meausres (I have fought white racism for over 20 years and all I have seen from the blacks is more and more hate directed at whites).
            dont give a dime to the naacp. those haters dont deserve anything

          • Black Racism

            Aint my fault the black racists wore out their racist as they wanna be cards given to them by the coward eric the red holder (mr my people).
            ever heard a white GA talk about his people?
            black people wear their racism on their sleeves with pride (white people are far more evolved than that)

      • No, they just don’t want to believe that racism from most white people doesn’t exist. The only racial epithet used in the incident in question was by Trayvon Martin, calling Zimmerman a “a creepy white cracker.”

  • The problem has been the focus on irrelevant arguments – some of which are actually unsupported by the evidence.

    1. ‘GZ racially profiled TM’ There is no evidence of this.

    2. ‘GZ disobeyed an order by the police’ * The civilian dispatcher, Sean Noffke, testified that he did not give GZ an order and, in fact, he, like his fellow dispatchers, are trained not make comments that sound like commands. * Noffke also testified under cross that, as a result of his asking GZ which way TM was going, GZ could have reasonably interpreted this as being asked to follow Martin. * It is also not a crime in Florida to disregard a comment made by a civilian dispatcher.

    3. ‘GZ got out of his car’ Not a crime on public property and not negligent either.

    4. ‘GZ followed TM’ Again, anyone can follow anyone on a public street unless the followee has obtained a restraining order against the follower and even there, the RS only places time, place, and manner restrictions on the person enjoined.

    5. ‘GZ wasn’t really injured’ * Under Florida’s self-defense laws, one doesn’t have to be injured AT ALL to use deadly force * No one is required to refrain from defending himself while another is engaged in or attempting to commit a felony.

    6. ‘TM is dead through no fault of his own’ * If you believe that TM assaulted GZ, then he IS dead as a result of his own actions.

    7. ‘GZ could have left’ * Under Florida law, there is not a duty to withdraw rather than use deadly force * TM was straddling GZ so how the latter was supposed to leave the scene is unanswered.

    8. ‘GZ was armed and TM wasn’t’ * One’s fists can be considered weapons and can result in severe bodily harm or death. * GZ was legally carrying a weapon * There is no requirement under the law that the same weapon be used by the assailant * A homeowner can kill an intruder whether or not he has been threatened * Those that attack cannot feign surprise if they are met with superior firepower.

    9. ‘Stand Your Ground!’ * SYG is NOT at issue in this trial. * The defense is a classic self-defense case.

    10. ‘Black men NEVER get to use SYG!’ * Wrong

    11. ‘GZ is a man and TM was a boy!’ * As if ‘boys’ don’t commit murder, rape, and assault everyday in this country.

    • Black Racism

      1) plenty of evidence trayvon profiled GZ as an easy mark he could easily get away with proving his worthiness to join the local gang known as the ‘goons’ (oops, the media ignored the fact that a local gang was known as the ‘goons’ and liked to conceal their identities with hoodies of all things.He told his gf that GZ was a “creepy ass cracka” which jeantel told the news folks meant a perosn who thought they were a cop or security guard (before she altewred her story one more tim and said it meant something else entirely).
      2) black people are famous for their ability to follow every instruction of a police officer?
      3) you are the eyes and ears of the police, you just are not allowed to exit your vehicle or home in the presence of a media, academic or presidentially santioned criminal (often post mortem). the media, the academics, and the racist black president think that you have no right to exit your home or car in the presence of a feral teen (left without any supervision for the weekend).
      4) Your right to protect your home, your neighbors home or your neighbor or your spouse have been eliminated in favor of feral teens who roam neighborhoods like a safari park (black teens are so dangerous, you are not alowed to even exit your vehicle in their pressnce or you should expect a near fatal beatdown that the media, the academics and the president will be entirley in aproval of.
      5) anyone who says GZ wasnt really injured must submit their head to my smash test (I have been a black belt since 1992 and I KNOW that being unarmed doesnt mean undangerous – all i need is a little concrete to kill anyone who says that those injuries were no big deal.
      6) live like a thug, die like one

    • Black Racism

      7. Trayvon’s parents didnt need to leave him all alone to terrorize the neighborhood. Trayvon supporters seem to think trayvon was the only person who had rights (nonsense) and that george zimmerman was the only one with responsibilities (BS) which would have been the case if little tray tray was only 2 or 3 or 4 years old (trayvon was old enough to join the military in every country in the world)
      8) So the only forms of combat that are illegal are armed combat?
      why is it ilegal to punch people in the face if it has no danger associated with it? isnt that how kids in the hood say “hello”?
      As a black belt for over 20 years, I can attest, concrfete is a deadly weapon (so is a foot with a shoe on it….even a shoe with a fot on it is very often prosecuted as use of a deadly weapon. the news media hope dwe were as ignorant of the law and the facst as they are.
      9) The media, the academics and the racist president wont be happy untli all the criminals are armed and unafraid and the ordinary folk are unarmed and afraid.
      The reason stand your ground is/was an issue in this trial even though it was never invoked (and the court totqally ignored the SYG process rights) is becuase the black racists and white guilt spreaders want to take away your right to defend yourself.
      10) black men never hurt anyone. they are not any more violent than any other group of men (if you think otherwise, you are a racisss and a black man will beat you senseless untli you agree black men are not violent).
      11) black boys are so innocent. they never hurt anyone. they are so meek and mild they cant do anything physical (they cant play nba or pro football cuz they are so meek and mild….blacks cannot play any of the rough sports, they are not good at the violent sports…not in their nature)
      black young men are convicted of murder all the time (they are convicted of murder at the age of 12 – ask angela corey – oh yeah, black teens never hurt anyone
      12) black people we were told are not angry (last year, we were suppoosed to assume no black are ever angry). now that the verdict has come down, we are supposed to assume black people are angry (and we are suppoosed to empathize with their anger, but not be upset at their anger being wrongly directed at innocent people).
      in other words, black people are allowed to be angry and whites are not allowed to be angry

  • Black Racism

    Nothing can lead to a productive conversation on race as long as the Africans Americans carry their “Racist as we wanna be cards” granted to them by the Attorney General of the United States of America (and witnesssed by the white guilt media, the white guilt academia and the divider in chief).
    The way for African Americans to caucasoid Americans that racism is bad, is for them to address the conssderable racism in their own communiities (spike lee and henry gates jr and rev wright might need to stand up and do a puiblic mea culpa).

  • georgeyancey

    May I suggest that rather than assume the worst motivations for those we disagree with and rehash this trial again that we show a willingness to try to understand them. Nothing is gained by calling each other racist. If we really want to be heard and respected then we will have to learn how to listen to and respect those we disagree.

  • Black Racism

    This is what I come away from the Trayvon martin case with from the media, the academics and the government:
    White racism is bad and it is everywhere (it may even be invisible).
    Black racism is good though it doesnt exist (and though black racism is highly visible almost every day, we are gonna pretend it is invisible even though nearly everyone can see it, but pretend it is either not there or it isnt so bad or it is understandable).

  • Black Racism

    When you see black racism you should do one of three things:
    1) pretend it is not there
    2) pretend that if it is there, it is no big deal
    3) claim hatred of whites is perfectly acceptable or understandable
    If you cant get away with numbers one through three, pretend you were always agaisnt black racism (even if you were its biggest supporter)

  • Carl_Bankston

    Well, I’m skeptical about whether this episode can lead to a productive conversation mainly because I don’t think most people (black or white) can approach either this heavily hyped tragic incident or questions of race in general as calmly and sensibly as George Yancey does. I like the reasonable and dispassionate tone of this post and I wish it were more common, especially among sociologists.

  • Lala Suarez

    Excellent article. I tend to be more hopeful than some of the comments made by the readers. I think we should continue to talk about this issue and find solutions. Lala Suarez

  • Mikado Cat

    If someone has wronged you in the past you have two choices, forgive them and move forward, or seek restitution or revenge. I am no saint, so I want restitution and will work diligently for it, but I am not blind that I am the one carrying the burden and that the moment I forgive the person I am free of it.

    You mention the Zimmerman/Martin case, and in looking into it I found references to three other cases, Marissa Alexander, Oscar Grant, and Bob Nash (his wife was in the Clinton administration and spurred the initial federal rules on profiling). All were given prominent media attention as examples race or race profiling. If you search the major media there can be no doubt that it is true, but if you dig deeper, look at the hard evidence the race claim has no merit in any of them.

    I know racism is alive and real, but in those four cases it is not regardless of what some media may claim to sell newspapers.

  • Mikado Cat

    The greatest obstacle to racial harmony are those that depend on disharmony as a source of political power or money.