By now everyone is familiar with the story of 17 year old Trayvon Martin. Visiting a family friend with his father, Trayvon fatefully walked to the corner store for an ice tea and skittles and never again would see his friends or family after a violent confrontation with self-appointed neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman.
This story, which has now gripped the nation for over two weeks, has progressed from a heart-wrenching tragedy to organized outrage to serious examination of the facts to political drama as competing narratives sediment and the legal process slowly cranks forward.
While the final chapter has yet to be written, the real tragedy of this story is that the death of Travyon Martin has not changed this nation's conversation on race. In fact, it's dredged up the same old conversation, revived the same tired narratives and distracting questions that almost every race incident that garners national headlines prompts. Until we start asking the right questions, we will never change the conversation on race.
The question isn't whether George Zimmerman is a racist. The question is what cultural cues, scripts and neighborhood arrangements prompted Mr. Zimmerman to view Travyon as suspicious.
The question isn't whether Mr. Zimmerman is a bigot, but rather what hostile territorialism or defensive neighborhood protectionism generated a misguided sense of responsibility to zealously pursue Travyon despite being told by the police to back off?
The question isn't whether Mr. Zimmerman was chasing down Travyon like a vigilante, but what anxieties contributed to a combustible situation?
The question isn't whether the police are racist, but rather what narratives exist that motivate police officers and other Americans to view young black men as 'criminally suspicious'?
The production of racial inequality in contemporary America is less a result of individual racial prejudice than a product of culturally embedded, subconscious racial associations and neighborhood arrangements, which distribute opportunity unevenly across our cities and towns.
It is deep structural forces, like pervasive patterns of residential racial segregation and subconscious implicit biases which make black youth seem alien or criminally suspect in private, largely white gated communities that are at issue. The tragedy of Travyon Martin perfectly captures this nation's deepest race problems, and yet almost no one is talking about what those problems really are.
Until we start asking the right questions, I fear there will be more Travyon Martins.