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April 3, 2012

William Masters: Nation stands divided between 'us' and 'them'

In February, Trayvon Martin was shot dead as "suspicious" by a volunteer neighborhood watchman. The case has aroused community reaction in Sanford, Fla., and is still echoing across the country.

As news goes, it is now an old story. But the underlying issues are older yet: the stereotyping of someone whose identity and dignity were blurred and disguised by his outward appearance ... a black face, a hoodie.

The 17-year-old was returning from a convenience store with candy and iced tea to watch a basketball game with his dad. It was raining, and he was talking on his cellphone with his girlfriend.

The neighborhood watch person, 28-year-old George Zimmerman, got out of his car and called 911 with concern about "a black male." He said looks "like he's up to no good." Told by 911 to hold back, he did not comply, telling the dispatcher, he's "on drugs or something ... these ... (expletive) always get away."

Trayvon rejected his girlfriend's advice to run, turned and asked, "What are you following me for?" The man demanded, "What are you doing here?" Screams were heard, which ended when a shot was fired.

Police did not detain Zimmerman. They commented that they knew him as a college graduate who had taken a course in criminology. They tested the boy's body for drugs and alcohol, but not Zimmerman's. Results were negative.

After the shooting, Zimmerman claimed he did not know that the boy was black -- contrary to his words on the police tape. He was quick to assert the standard claim that he shot in self-defense, fearing for his life. The boy's girlfriend said that she heard Trayvon screaming, but Zimmerman now claims that it was he who was screaming. Trayvon was not armed.

Yes, this story is now a bit dated. But it is also an old story. A recurring story. An unnecessary crime with the benefit of the doubt going to the culpable party. This is not novel but ongoing. Two threads need to be highlighted.

First, ours is a society with a big skew toward imbalanced economic distribution. The income gap of the poor is marked, as is the per capita wealth of the rich. This is an "us" and "them" society. It does not uniformly convey a sense of belonging to the lower classes. They are too often seen as aggressive and angry, deserving their exclusion. Some even have the temerity to use safety-net services.

Secondly, we are a gun society. Gun rules are drafted to help "us" be safe from "them," though there are only subjective undercurrents about who is in the category of "them." Some people are assumed to be criminals merely because they have a gun. In New York City, black undercover cops have been shot by uniformed police with this misapprehension.

There is a truth at stake in the interaction of these two. We have allowed our society to be bifurcated with prejudice between the privileged and the poor. We have an underclass that hears loud and clear the 21st Century version of "Let Them Eat Cake." That is "get a job." There is only shame in the smugness of such belittlement. It is frequently heard in the Republican primaries.

Florida's 2005 Stand Your Ground self-defense law means individuals can take action in confrontations with danger, in public, as if you were in your own home. Championed by the National Rifle Association, this kind of law is now in about 20 states, allowing "good" people to bear arms, as if the "bad" people are essentially obvious, and fair game.

Bifurcated societies are unhealthy across the whole spectrum of conditions, affecting us all. Crime does go up. Health and mental health decline. Kids drop out of school. Rates of incarceration systematically rise, disproportionately within the underclass. "The Land of the Free" now has the greatest rate of incarceration in the whole world. And the black male incarceration rate is more than six times that of the white male incarceration rate.

Within my lifetime it was asserted that criminality was a racial tendency of the black population, blaming the downtrodden for their own condition. I think this fear still lurks below the surface for too many.

It is the self-fulfilling prophecy of injustice and prejudice. Just imagine being singled out as "suspicious" and "up to no good" by an untrained but self-armed volunteer on a neighborhood watch, followed, confronted, shot dead at 17. That is not law and order, but law and disorder.

William Masters can be reached at The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.

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