In the wake of Zimmerman’s exoneration, fiery and accusatory debates between pundits on cable news networks seem to repeatedly dead end in proclamations that we need to have a national dialogue, a conversation, or discussion about race in the United States today. But what does that even mean? And how do we spark a productive national dialogue rather than simply fostering a broken public debate that constantly rehashes the same points about Zimmerman’s trial and then clumsily extrapolates those points to comment on the broader status of America’s race relations?
With these important questions in mind, I have written a list of actions below that I believe virtually all of us can take in order to at least begin this ambiguous journey towards a productive discussion on race.
1. Take a step back from the Zimmerman trial
From day one, the tragic death of Trayvon Martin has prompted Americans from all walks of life to refocus their attention on race as a primary national issue. However, the trial of George Zimmerman itself simply cannot act as a vehicle for the resolution of this issue because the evidence currently available to the public about what transpired that night is too ambiguous to establish a clear picture of how deeply racism played into either Zimmerman or Martin’s decisions to engage one another. As a result, many individuals have begun filling in the metaphorical blanks of evidence with biased political views, quickly fueling an atmosphere of accusatory, partisan, and inherently unproductive discussions about race.
Of course, the trial should not be cast aside in conversations about racism, but we should all strive to curb the strong emotional tendency to cast brash and biased (rather than thorough and rational) opinions about how events unfolded that night, how Zimmerman’s trial transpired, and what wider effects these events have levied on the status of race relations in the United States today.
2. Focus on how you address race in your own life
The Zimmerman trial has brought the rather ambiguous concept of informal racial profiling back into the national spotlight, a practice that I think it is fair to say most Americans engage in quite frequently.
Do you engage in racial profiling? Have or would you cross the street late at night if you saw a young black man walking towards you? Do you change your vocabulary and style of conversation with people of different races? Assessing the answers to these questions and then working to understand why certain tendencies exist for racism in one’s own life — rather than focusing on accusing others of harboring these racist tendencies — is critical to fostering a productive, rather than dysfunctional, national dialogue about race.
3. Talk to your friends, peers, coworkers, etc. about race and the Zimmerman trial
Ok, so I just said take a step back from the Zimmerman trial, but the fact remains that Treyvon Martin’s death is the lens through which much of our current national discussion on race is emerging. With that in mind, take the opportunity of discussion over Zimmerman’s guilt to really hone in on other peoples’ opinions about race in a rational and respectful manner. Of course, don’t be shy, say what you think, and intentionally look to discuss these issues with a wide variety of people — especially those who disagree with you. In other words, spur this widely anticipated national discussion by having smaller discussions amongst your own social groups and getting a feel for the different views on race that permeate the population.
4. Get Informed
Once you get a better idea of peoples’ broad opinions, start working to understand if the bulwark of available statistics and theory actually support these various views. For anybody that is a full time college student, most libraries allow anybody on the university's network to access vast online databases (like EBSCO and J-Store) of journals, academic articles, and statistics. Otherwise, pick up a book on the subject, but be sure to grab one that attempts to provide a balanced overview of the discussions surrounding racism in the U.S. today rather than a biased argument that might sit on one side of these discussions.
Doing some solid research on an issue like race might seem a bit tedious, but how can we expect to advance some sort of a national discussion on the subject if we only rely on hearsay and rhetorical punditry (both of which seem to echo scholarship of from the 1980s and 1990s) to inform our views?
5. Move from Discussion to Action
After doing some soul searching, talking to friends, and getting informed, the next obvious step would be to take action on the revelations that you will have inevitably arrived at. Taking action is a broad concept that can encompass everything from making some small changes in your own life to embarking on a campaign of political action or starting a NGO. So, if this issue of race remains prevalent in your mind even after the Zimmerman trial has faded into the not so distant past of now passé news stories, take an inventory of your time and decide what you can do to help morph a national discussion into a strong national movement for action.