07/19/2013 05:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

George Zimmerman, OJ Simpson, Obama's Racial Optimism, and Bush Obama America


There is a short letter to the editor in the Orlando Sentinel in which a Florida resident was devastated and shocked by the verdict. She wrote: "...the jurors were offered two paths to follow in coming to their decision regarding ...guilt or innocence... the well-traveled path of racism and vengeance. It is a clear path, because many people, both black and white, have traveled it before..., the more difficult path leading to justice and equality for all... hasn't been traveled often, and it is precarious and exhausting to follow. Perhaps the jurors were just too tired to choose that path...I had hoped that these jurors, with all the world watching, would courageously make the tougher choice. I am so disappointed. Yet, something inside me says, Maybe next time.''

The letter writer was not referring to the Zimmerman case. The letter appeared in the newspaper on October 6, 1995, a couple of days after a predominantly black jury found OJ Simpson not guilty. Over the past week, I could not escape thoughts of the OJ Simpson trial when thinking of the Zimmerman trial. There is a chilling dissimilarity in looking at the media coverage of the responses to both verdicts.

Many of the white voices of horror and outrage over the Simpson verdict also contained "shock" and "surprise" over the verdict in the Simpson case. In looking at the many of the responses of those angry over the Zimmerman outcome, there is a numbing outrage, but not a lot surprise. This was expressed in one of most sobering and chilling comments I have heard in the Trayvon Martin discourse. It comes from Charles Cherry, publisher of The Florida Courier, which covers the state and extensively covered the trial. "Disappointment... but not much of a surprise. The interesting thing is that the Sanford black community never believed, and was never optimistic, that Zimmerman was going to be convicted anyway. In that city, by and large, they did not believe that Zimmerman could be convicted in Sanford... People here are not shocked. I think they are very disappointed because it became a reality that Zimmerman was going to walk away a free man... The conversation that Anderson Cooper had with Juror B-37 does not make it any easier, and it doesn't improve the credibility that black people should have or are expected to have in the judicial system. When you listen to the dismissive nature, and the intimacy with which she called George Zimmerman 'George,' and when asked about whether she felt sorry for Trayvon, who is dead, she said she felt sorry for both of them, and so on and so forth... "

Not just in Sanford: "Numbing but not surprising" characterizes the reaction across the nation among those disappointed with the verdict. Think about it for one minute: An injustice at the center of a such a mountain of outrage is not surprising. It is numbing but expected.

In looking at the coverage in Bush-Obama counties, it is comforting to see the racial and ethnic diversity in the outrage over the outcome. There is also something else that is not comforting but so frightening: an expectation by Zimmerman sympathizers of massive black rioting and violence against whites in the wake of the verdict. Please. That expectation of rioting (which did not significantly materialize) is so compatible to the very sick mindset that saw Trayvon Martin as a dangerous threat in the first place, rather than what he was: a teenage boy.

Then there is President Obama. He too is not surprised yet holds a strongly optimistic view on race relations which is tempered with a sense of realism and rationalism a la his impromptu comments today. "And let me just leave you with a final thought that, as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don't want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn't mean we're in a post-racial society. It doesn't mean that racism is eliminated. But when I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I seem them interact, they're better than we are -- they're better than we were -- on these issues. And that's true in every community that I've visited all across the country."

The strong clues to his pragmatic optimism on race are rooted firmly in his grandparents' acceptance of his father tempered by an understanding of the limitations in the roots of their racial progressiveness. In his memoir, Dreams From My Father, he writes:

"Miscegenation. The word is humpbacked, ugly, portending a monstrous outcome: like antebellum or octoroon, it evokes images of another era, a distant world or horsewhips and flames, dead magnolias and crumbling porticos. And yet it wasn't until 1967--the year I celebrated my sixth birthday and Jimi Hendrix performed at Monterey, three years after Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize, a time when America had already begun to weary of black demands for equality, the problem of discrimination presumably solved--that the Supreme Court of the United States would get around to telling the state of Virginia that its ban on interracial marriages violated the Constitution. In 1960, the year that my parents were married, miscegenation still described a felony in over half the states in the Union. In many parts of the South, my father could have been strung up from a tree for merely looking at my mother the wrong way; in the most sophisticated of northern cities, the hostile stares, the whispers, might have driven a woman in my mother's predicament into a back-alley abortion--or at the very least to a distant convent that could arrange for adoption. Their very image together would have been considered lurid and perverse, a handy retort to the handful of softheaded liberals who supported a civil rights agenda.

"Sure -- but would you let your daughter marry one?

"The fact that my grandparents had answered yes to this question, no matter how grudgingly, remains an enduring puzzle to me. There was nothing in their background to predict such a response, no New England transcendentalists or wild-eyed socialists in their family tree...

"...Theirs were the faces of American Gothic, the WASP bloodline's poorer cousins, and in their eyes one could see truths that I would have to learn later as facts: that Kansas had entered the Union free only after a violent precursor to the Civil War, the battle in which John Brown's sword tasted first blood; that while one of my great-great-grandfathers, Christopher Columbus, Clark, had been a decorated Union soldier, his wife's mother was rumored to have been a second cousin of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy; that although another distant ancestor had indeed been a full-blooded Cherokee, such lineage was source of considerable shame to Toot's mother, who blanched whenever someone mentioned the subject and hoped to carry the secret to her grave."

Perhaps his lineage helps to explain why he has faith in the cliche "let's have a conversation about race." As he said today, "I haven't seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have. On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there's the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy."