The Zimmerman verdict is in, but the story is far from over. A Justice Department investigation is underway to determine whether civil rights charges should be filed. After all, isn’t this the next logical step? Even Joe Scarborough, writing a
Politco Op-Ed in which he was ironically trying dial down the polarized reaction to the verdict, said that Zimmerman was “a racist idiot.”
No one should compromise on principle of resisting the racist social structures in our culture of whiteness, but it is a mistake to use that broad social lens to label individual people. Especially when it comes to race, the label often hides much more than it reveals.
It can even push people even to lie and distort the facts to fit the preordained racialized story. Zimmerman, a Hispanic, continues to be described as “white” in many news outlets. NBC News cut the audio tape of Zimmerman’s phone call to give the false impression he described Martin as “black” in connection with the fact that he looked suspicious. In reality, Zimmerman was asked about Martin’s race later in the conversation. A veteran producer was fired over the gross violation of professional ethics, and Zimmerman has sued NBC, but the damage was already done. Zimmerman had been slapped with the label.
Among those who accepted the label was Slate journalist William Saletan—that is until actually sat down and watched seven hours of closing statements. What he discovered surprised him: “I had been wrong about many things. The initial portrait of Zimmerman as a racist wasn’t just exaggerated. It was completely unsubstantiated. It’s a case study in how the same kind of bias that causes racism can cause unwarranted allegations of racism.” The FBI did an intensive investigation of Zimmerman and found no evidence that he was a racist. To the contrary,CNN reported that he was advocate for blacks in his community, even bringing public attention to the beating of homeless black man by the white son of Sanford police officer. ABC News reported that he and his wife tutor black children for free. And it turns out that Zimmerman actually has a black great-grandfather.
Texas state senator Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) speaks on June 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
This past weekend we also saw Texas pass a law which restricts abortion after 20 weeks. Some of the law’s most passionate defenders called their opponents “pro-aborts” and “radical feminists”, but these labels also hide more than they reveal. Those who opposed the bill are not necessarily pro-abortion, but instead argue that we should keep big government out of the private choices of women. They need not be “pro-abortion” any more than those who support the First Amendment are “pro-pornography.” Nor is opposition to the bill being led by women. To the contrary, 50 percent of American women supported the bill, compared to only 46 percent of men. Some of the strongest opponents to the bill are “brochoice” men—arguing that the bill would make casual sex outside of relationships far more difficult to obtain.
Finally, the debate over LGBT marriage goes on. Though the recent Supreme Court ruling about DOMA is evidence of growing support, 31 U.S. states still have constitutional bans of various kinds of same sex unions. The debate, however, has reached new levels of incivility. Though LGBT people continue to be subjected to horrific bigotry, those who oppose gay marriage are also labeled “bigots” or “homophobic.”
But Ryan Anderson points out that, on this view, President Obama deserved the label “homophobic bigot” given that he opposed gay marriage for most of his presidency. Similar labels could have been used against Bill Clinton, who signed the Defense of Marriage Act. But once again, these labels hide more than they reveal. Many who have questions about gay marriage are not primarily concerned with gays and lesbians, but are instead driven by concerns for having a coherent concept of marriage and family—particularly as it impacts the flourishing of children. (Many, for similar reasons, also question the “no fault” divorce epidemic with heterosexual couples.) One can challenge their data, especially because it appears that children do well in same-sex families, but this is where our focus should be: the arguments. Labeling people “homophobic bigots” keeps us from having them.
Use of these labels is lazy, inaccurate and unjust. If we have any hope of honestly engaging our most pressing problems we must drop our labels and engage real people and real positions. Yes, we should try to persuade. But let’s do more listening, more reflective thinking, and even reserve the right to change our mind.
Charles C. Camosy is assistant professor of ethics at Fordham University in New York City. His most recent book is Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization.