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Of Criminals and Crackers: A Personal Essay On the Zimmerman Trial By a Grown-up Florida Boy

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Adam Gopnik points out in a June 10 New Yorker article -- "In The Back Cabana: The Rise and Rise of Florida Crime Fiction" -- Florida is the undisputed favorite locale for a sub-genre of crime fiction he calls Florida Glare (or one may prefer the more paradoxical term, sunshine noir) that he suggests has replaced the classic L.A. Noir sub-genre established by Raymond Chandler and others. The Florida noir list includes John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, Lisa Unger, Randy Wayne White and Tim Dorsey to just scratch the surface. Many are newspaper writers besides being crime writers, like Hiaasen, who has referred to Florida as "Newark with palm trees." Some like Dorsey's (Florida Roadkill and Nuclear Jellyfish) are over the top psycho rides. Gopnik emphasizes Florida's intimacy with Latin America and says of the state: "This is a society without basic repressions. There are no dirty secrets. ...Corruption begins to have a Third World quality." (For a truly dark and gothic example of cinematic sunshine noir made from Pete Dexter's novel of the same name, see the recent film The Paperboy directed by the gay black director Lee Daniels.)

My father had a PhD in Physiology and taught at the University of Miami Medical School, while we lived in the agricultural area of South Dade County so he could work his hobby as an amateur nurseryman filling an acre with tables of exotic potted plants. We had guns that I would shoot in the back yard, which amounted to acres of empty pine and palmetto where we would encounter wild turkeys and sometimes an Eastern diamondback rattling a warning. After my two brothers and I left, some criminal types one dark night cut the phone line and tried to break into the house, we presume to do harm to my aging parents. The old man fortunately heard them trying to break in and began to blast away with his WWII Navy-issue .45 automatic, shattering the night silence and scaring the threat away. Had he hit one of them, the cops would no doubt have congratulated him. Soon after that, they moved to the safer area of Naples on the Gulf coast.

As a northeast-born white kid growing up in rural south Florida, it's been a long road getting to where I am now. Some no doubt will call me a "self-hating white man." That would not be true, of course. What that kind of label really means is the person either doesn't understand, or is too dishonest to recognize, that what someone like me has come to "hate" is the persistent legacy of white-based racial animosity toward, and consequent oppression of, African Americans in the United States.

What I disdain is a deep-rooted legacy that only seems to become more sophisticated, more submerged and more coded with the years. The point is, it's the rare individual who voluntarily gives up or turns against a historically-established privileged status and its benefits in the absence of a more painful alternative. The tragic fact is, the immensely secure majority status in population numbers, wealth and power precludes white America being presented with any kind of painful alternative. So it just goes on, and our prisons keep filling up.

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White Man's Guilt

Nothing explains the above from the point of view of the African American better than James Baldwin's 1965 Ebony essay called "White Man's Guilt." It's in the form of a plea, and the tone is one of sheer amazement at my race's capacity for self-interested self-delusion. He starts off by saying it "can be unutterably exhausting" having to deal with this capacity in white people.

"I am speaking as an historical creation. ... [I]t is probable that only a creature despised by history finds history a questionable matter" -- unlike "people who imagine that history flatters them." He sees white people "impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin ... incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world."

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"They are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence."

This sort of "incoherence" was so blaringly evident to me in the Zimmerman trial at moments like the one where attorney Don West continuously grilled 19-year-old Rachel Jeantel about Trayvon Martin referring to the ominous man following him as a "crazy ass cracker." In his exhausting mind, West wanted to see the term "cracker" as equivalent to something like "n-word." To her credit, Ms. Jeantel softly stuck to her guns. No, "cracker" did not seem like "racial language" to her.

Baldwin then raises "those stammering, terrified dialogues" that we whites tend to initiate with blacks when white guilt comes up. "Do not blame me. I was not there. I did not do it. ... Anyway it was your chiefs who sold you to me." I can hear Sean Hannity saying this kind of thing, his mien an earnest, friendly, smiling guise of incredulity. "I have nothing against you, nothing! What have you got against me? What do you want?"

The bottom line, of course, is who benefits from the accumulations of the history in question and who doesn't. Baldwin again: "In the most private chamber of his heart always, the white American remains proud of that history for which he does not wish to pay, and from which, materially, he has profited so much." On the other side of the ledger, though, "in the most private chambers of [their] heart always, black Americans ... begin to suspect an awful thing: that people believe that they deserve their history." He calls it "the trap of believing that they deserve their fate" -- as white people feel they "deserve" theirs. This is all consistent for me with a Clarence Thomas cynically appointed by a Republican President to sit on the US Supreme Court to replace a Thurgood Marshall.

Finally, Baldwin raises the big one -- white fear, "a muffled fear that black people long to do to others what has been done to them," leading white people "to a fearful baffling place where they have begun to lose touch with reality ... where they certainly are not truly happy for they know they are not truly safe. They do not know how this came about; they do not dare examine how this came about. ...[T]hey can scarcely dare to open a dialogue which must, if it is honest, become a personal confession -- a cry for help and healing which is, really, I think, the basis for all dialogues."

Further preventing such a healing process is the other side of such a dialogue, the confessional aspects of the black person's story, "which fatally contains an accusation."

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"One can measure very neatly the white American's distance from his conscience -- from himself -- by observing the distance between white America and black America. One has only to ask oneself who established this distance, who is this distance designed to protect, and from what is this distance designed to offer protection?"

For me, this explains why Judge Nelson so sternly disallowed the discussion of race in the George Zimmerman trial. As a white woman assigned to represent a deeply flawed criminal justice system she knew in her heart all that Baldwin speaks of, and she knew that once the lid on this stuff is raised it's a Pandora's Box. Her trial would become an extended media circus and a terrifying ride to a place no one in charge could predict. She did not want that to happen. She wanted the trial to be constrained within the controllable realm of the state's established and codified laws, thus preventing any outbreak in court of the painful, healing dialogue Baldwin speaks of. Since white guilt and black victimhood are so often historically associated with police, or would-be police-like, abuses of power, the preclusion of racial issues from the Zimmerman trial became the metaphoric concrete and rebar Lisa Unger writes about that keeps Florida's feral heart caged.

How the Scales Fell From My Eyes

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I'm a 68-year-old American who served in Vietnam as a naive 19-year-old kid. From that moment on, I've been studying and re-thinking what US counter-insurgency war means. I live outside of Philadelphia, where I'm a writer, photographer and (more...)

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