I’m hardly about to wade into whether the jury was right or wrong on the recent Zimmerman trial.  But the upset over it reveals wider trends within the U.S. that show just how much further America has to go before it’s considered a fully civilized country.

Kids vs. adults

One should always remember that nation-states are still made up of human beings.  They’re not unseen entities floating across the map, but rather cities and communities full of people.  They are therefore subject to human psychology, albeit on a mass scale.

Cultures go through development phases akin to what we all do as we grow up.  Cultures sometimes act like petulant teenagers, sophisticated adults, or morally and physically exhausted seniors.  American culture exhibits many aspects of the first two.  It has always been facing something of an identity crisis.  What it means to be an American has always been a difficult question, which is why Americans are so addicted to hyphenating their identity with some ethnicity in order to attach themselves to older, more “adult” cultures of the Old World.  Think of how many people around you like to say they’re Italian, African, Asian, or Indian, but were in fact born in the U.S. and can’t speak the native language of the culture they identify with.

American racism is a symptom of a culture still growing up

American racism is deeply embedded in society, cutting across racial lines, as the Zimmerman trial showed.  People who had very little actual knowledge of the trial or case very early on made assumptions about the victim and perpetrator based solely on racial lines.  This was because, like a teenager, they jumped to an emotional conclusion, rather than approaching the trial like a collected adult.  Most of it was cloaked in language of justice, but justice for all sides concerned often had little to do with legalities, but rather cultural notions of what is and is not acceptable in society, often relating to the powers of policing.

Racism is, however, dying out

The American experience has changed drastically thanks to technology, mass media, and the increased efficiency of the state to carry out its stated duties.  Racism was most powerful when the American state was weakest. The Civil War aligned power from the local governments to the central one, which had less interest in enforcing irrational local norms.  As the Federal government grew in power, racism was slowly eroded away to the edges of society.

Powerful states with global responsibilities don’t have time to discriminate 

It is no accident that civil rights as a movement got a boost after World War II.  This was a fundamental demonstration that the U.S. could not afford to waste talent or manpower on cultural bigotries when the Soviets were not doing the same.  Post-war presidents were such big proponents of civil rights not merely for moral reasons; they had eminently practical ones related directly to the military needs of a superpower.

Nevertheless, the job’s hardly done. This is partly because it’s a large country with a diverse population.  It’s also because it’s still a young country whose national survival has never been directed threatened by outsiders.  It’s had to time to waste on growing up because, like your typical suburban teen, it’s still trying to figure itself out.

But this is rapidly changing

The fact that a myriad of voices spoke about the trial wholly in legal terms – and that much of the blame has shifted away from racism and towards Florida’s laws – are proof that the conformity pushed by the central government is taking root.  But America still has a long way to go.

Like the wider global culture wars, American racism is a traditional value dying out in the face of globalization.  As the American state has the ability to manage this change with little violence, its death will be viewed through a handful of stories from the mass media rather than through unrest on the streets.  So America is changing – but has not grown up fully yet.

One thought on “George Zimmerman, American racism, and how nations civilize themeslves

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