Humans being what we are, every culture seems to divide itself over some version of tribalism, and there's no doubt that, in the United States, this has meant troubled relation based on skin color. Racism has dogged this country since its beginning, when it was written into the Constitution. And racial divisions remained in the laws of the country until a surprisingly few decades ago. But, while some disparities remain in the treatment of people with different skin colors — especially in how the criminal justice system and drug prohibition affect young, black men — we've come a hell of a long way in a relatively short period of time. Because there are still real concerns with racial bias in our society, there's no benefit to be had in crying "racism" every time we're unhappy with an outcome — whether it's verdict in a criminal trial in Florida, or the way asparagus is displayed in a grocery store in St. Louis.
Yes, asparagus. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that a member of the city's human relations commission accused a local grocery chain of bias over the way it displayed its vegetables. Writes Stephen Deere for the Post-Dispatch:
UNIVERSITY CITY • A dried-out batch of asparagus has touched off a debate about racial discrimination, grocery stores and the role of citizen-led commissions.
It started in May when resident David Olander was perusing the produce section of the University City Schnucks. He noticed the asparagus weren't resting in a tray of water.
"It was just sitting there dried out," said Olander, a member of the city's human relations commission.
Olander summoned an assistant manager, and then he asked the question: Did the quality of the asparagus have any relationship to the store's location in a black neighborhood?
"'I certainly hope not,'" Olander recalled the manager saying.
Olander's experience prompted him to write a letter to Schnucks CEO Scott Schnuck, and out of that came a meeting with Schnucks employees.
But the letter and meeting were tinged with allegations that the St. Louis area's largest grocery chain was discriminating against minority communities — accusations that Schnucks vehemently denies.
Olander's concerns were ostensibly raised by the difference between the appearance of asparagus at the University City store and the asparagus at another store, eight miles away. The result was a meeting including Olander, commission chairwoman Kathy McGinnis, a chamber of commerce representative and three people from Schnucks. The Schnucks people defended the quality of their stores and promised to try harder, while Olander credited them for "showing good faith."
But the Post-Dispatch reports that a recording of a human relations commission meeting reveals slightly different motivations on Olander's part.
Olander admitted to being in an "ornery mood" the day he visited the store. "I just felt like stirring it up a little bit, letting them know that somebody cares," he said, according to the recording.
For the record, a member of a city commission charged with improving human relations apparently leveled an (always highly charged) accusation of racial bigotry and dragged representatives of a business into a meeting, apparently because he was in a pissy mood.
Yesterday, in a much higher-profile and greater-stakes matter, Attorney General Eric Holder joined the chorus evoking race in the trial of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin. Speaking before the NAACP, he said, in part:
Independent of the legal determination that will be made, I believe this tragedy provides yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly – and openly – about the complicated and emotionally-charged issues that this case has raised.
Years ago, some of these same issues drove my father to sit down with me to have a conversation – which is no doubt familiar to many of you – about how as a young black man I should interact with the police, what to say, and how to conduct myself if I was ever stopped or confronted in a way I thought was unwarranted. I'm sure my father felt certain – at the time – that my parents' generation would be the last that had to worry about such things for their children.
Since those days, our country has indeed changed for the better. The fact that I stand before you as the 82nd Attorney General of the United States, serving in the Administration of our first African American President, proves that. Yet, for all the progress we've seen, recent events demonstrate that we still have much more work to do – and much further to go. The news of Trayvon Martin's death last year, and the discussions that have taken place since then, reminded me of my father's words so many years ago. And they brought me back to a number of experiences I had as a young man – when I was pulled over twice and my car searched on the New Jersey Turnpike when I'm sure I wasn't speeding, or when I was stopped by a police officer while simply running to a catch a movie, at night in Georgetown, in Washington, D.C. I was at the time of that last incident a federal prosecutor.
Trayvon's death last spring caused me to sit down to have a conversation with my own 15 year old son, like my dad did with me. This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down. But as a father who loves his son and who is more knowing in the ways of the world, I had to do this to protect my boy. I am his father and it is my responsibility, not to burden him with the baggage of eras long gone, but to make him aware of the world he must still confront. This is a sad reality in a nation that is changing for the better in so many ways.
But, as Attorney General, Holder presides over the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He knows that the FBI already looked into this case — a shooting that normally would have been handled by state and local authorities — and found no evidence of racial animus. As the New York Post reports:
An FBI report on the Trayvon Martin killing could drown out the growing chorus calling for a civil-rights prosecution of acquitted shooter George Zimmerman, legal experts said yesterday.
In the report, FBI agents quoted the lead investigator describing the neighborhood-watch volunteer as "overzealous and as having a 'little hero complex,' but not as a racist."
The April 2012 report says Sanford, Fla., Detective Chris Serino found "Zimmerman's actions were not based on Martin's skin color" but "on his attire, the total circumstances of the encounter and the previous burglary suspects in the community."
The FBI's report doesn't mean that everybody is required to be pleased by the outcome of the Zimmerman trial, but it does mean that there's little evidence to support accusations of racial bias in Zimmerman's actions. Interviews with a juror since the trial reveal a great deal of thoughtful deliberation and no bias there, either.
That's not asparagus, but continued evokation of racial bias in cases big and small risks defusing the impact of legitimate charges of bigotry. And such charges are justified elsewhere.
For instance, the ACLU has reported that ""In 2010, the Black arrest rate for marijuana possession was 716 per 100,000, while the white arrest rate was 192 per 100,000." The Washington Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs found similar disparities for simple drug possession in the nation's capital. As Reason's own Mike Riggs wrote, "Yes, there's a county in the U.S. in which blacks make up 12 percent of the population and 100 percent of the marijuana arrests. The drug war is racist as hell."
Likewise, the death penalty is disproportionately applied based on skin color. Amnesty International reports that "the single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim" and cites research that finds that, in Connecticut, "African-American defendants receive the death penalty at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims are white."
For the Cato Institute, John McWhorter wrote in 2011 (PDF):
The main obstacle to getting black America past the illusion that racism is still a defining factor in America is the strained relationship between young black men and police forces. The massive number of black men in prison stands as an ongoing and graphically resonant rebuke to all calls to "get past racism," exhibit initiative or stress optimism. And the primary reason for this massive number of black men in jail is the War on Drugs.
The treatment of African-Americans by the criminal justice system and by police is a matter of real concern. But you heard none of that from David Olander in St. Louis and barely a hint in Eric Holder's speech to the NAACP. Holder certainly made no references to drug prohibition, which is a policy that he supports.
That's a shame, because we have real issues to discuss in this country about the treatment of minorities in general, and young black men in particular. And we need to address those issues before bogus allegations based in unrelated criminal cases and (of all things) asparagus strip the word "racism" of its power.