“O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion.”
— Robert Burns
The US is always collectively amazed on those rare occasions when it has cause to glimpse at how it is perceived by its less friendly critics abroad. The most egregious example, of course, was Sept. 11, 2001, when even the brutal enormity of the attack against the US was not quite enough to still the hateful tongues of people crass enough to insist that the US had got what was coming to it. The citizens of the US have an absolute right to go about their business without being slaughtered. Of course they do. Which is why the world is aghast that this right does not extend as far as Trayvon Martin.
When the unarmed 17-year-old was shot dead by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman on Feb. 26 last year, the killer was not even arrested for 44 days, having said that he fired in self-defense. Self-defense?
He had already called the police, telling the operator that Martin was acting suspiciously — “up to no good, on drugs or something.”
Zimmerman had been told by the operator not to follow the teenager, but nevertheless he found himself and his gun right next to Martin, provoking a struggle. What kind of self-defense is this, when you decide that someone is trouble, and that you are going to stalk him, safe in the knowledge that if things get out of hand ... well, you are armed? Yet a jury decided that going out armed, looking for a particular person to defend yourself against, is still self-defense, and on July 13, Zimmerman was acquitted of murder.
Only protest from the public ensured that Zimmerman was tried for killing Martin at all. Only protest from the public has ensured that this killing has been seen through the prism of race. Yet to an outsider, it is obvious that Martin died because he was black, and that Zimmerman walked free after killing him for the same reason.
The jurors say that they acted in strict accordance with the law of the land. They probably did. The law of the land in the US was formulated so that settlers could carry guns in self-defense against their enemies — Native Americans. Later, similar rights over the lives and deaths of slaves pertained. All that is so deeply embedded in the US collective psyche that it is easier to forget that it is there than remember it.
Even though equal civil rights for black Americans are still so new, their achievement still so clear in living memory, the US just cannot see what the rest of the world sees — that inequality so entrenched in the history of a state does not disappear in matter of decades; on the contrary, the baleful fruits of generations of inequality can be used to justify the very prejudice that promoted the inequality in the first place.
Not that the UK has room to be too superior. British people went off to win the west, and having won it, imported slaves to make it pay. Later, Afro-Caribbean men and women were invited to come and work in Britain, at the jobs that did not pay enough to attract the incumbent population. The UK history of racism may not have been formalized in a written constitution, but Britain is just like the US in its reluctance to admit that the casual, widespread racism of the past has far-reaching consequences that give succor to those who wish to be racists still.