Suddenly, we are being dragged back to the 1980s--a time when race was front and center as the great American divide, a time of anger and backlash and showboating. We are dragged there by the Trayvon Martin verdict, by the Supreme Court's decision to void a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and even by the slow dissolution of immigration reform in the House of Representatives. There is an easy slippage into antique caricatures: Al Sharpton is back; Rachel Jeantel, Martin's unfortunate phone pal, surfaces to stoke every white racist's fantasy about the limitations of black people; and six jurors find it all too easy to believe that a vigilante who had stalked an innocent black teenager was acting in self-defense when, during a scuffle, he shot the kid point-blank.
And yet none of this quite fits. This is not the 1980s; race isn't the issue it was 30 years ago. It isn't binary--black and white--anymore. It's a kaleidoscope now: Latinos outnumber blacks in the American population, healthy dollops of South and East Asians add to the mix, and the prospect of a nonwhite majority is just around the bend. In 2013 the jury may still be almost all white, but the shooter is Hispanic--and the evidence is cloudy. If I were a member of that jury, operating in the context of Florida's barbaric gun laws, I might have had to vote to acquit. George Zimmerman clearly was guilty of overzealous racial profiling, but there was no definitive evidence of how the scuffle began. It was not beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman was overacting in self-defense. Martin's death is an outrage, but it is not Emmett Till or Medgar Evers.
In a way, the 1980s were the last good time for Republicans. The Democrats were sitting ducks. They refused to face the reality transpiring in the slums. All too often they portrayed criminals as social victims. They defended a morally corrupt welfare system. They considered Daniel Patrick Moynihan's acute observation about the disintegration of the black family "racist." Until Bill Clinton said in 1993 that two-parent families were better for children than single moms--finally acknowledging a ton of sociological evidence--most Democrats considered such statements "blaming the victim." As a result, the Republicans, with a solid white majority, could float into the presidency on a tide of coded racial appeals.
We must be honest about this: ever since Richard Nixon's Southern strategy in 1968, race has been the Republican Party's tallest tent pole. Oh, there were other poles--a strong national defense against the communists, traditional values, low taxes--but even the latter two were, ultimately, about race. Where was the tax money going? To the unwed mother driving the welfare Cadillac. (Yes, disproportionate numbers of African Americans still receive benefits like food stamps--but the vast majority of them, 75%, do not.)