George Zimmerman and Tom Wolfe

I’m reading The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe for the first time, and meanwhile I’m watching the George Zimmerman trial every day on CNN. I’m thinking about how stories get retold, how they gain blood and bones and how human themes play out and then replay. Trayvon Martin is the face I see when I visualize Henry Lamb, the boy with the thin, delicate face in Bonfire; more than that, when I picture Reverend Bacon, I see Benjamin Crump. There’s a lot of banter on the news about Crump and his ability to whip up a frenzy around the George Zimmerman case.

I don’t liken Crump to Bacon because I see Crump as a villain. In fact, if Crump has built a vehicle out of Trayvon Martin, I am firmly on board as part of Team Trayvon. However, Crump mirrors Reverend Bacon by using race as a political tool. Crump was very successful in bringing Trayvon Martin’s story to the attention of the public, and did so by skillfully directing the anger involved in such a racially charged case. Crump was able to catapult the suggestion of profiling into national recognition. That’s pretty Baconian.

I just happen to be reading Bonfire of the Vanities while the Zimmerman trail is going on, and I’m sure that if the two events were separated in my mind, the similarities would seem less poignant. But the sense of racial tension, the idea of profiling a person based on the circumstances and that person’s race, the way the legal system can swoop and hover around the larger point without ever landing on it, the way interactions between a few people can become symbolic of a larger human relationship- these themes are present in both the trial and the novel.

I am not naive enough to believe that racism is dead or that America is post-race. I know racism is alive because I’m a white woman. I live in a poor neighborhood because I’m a young college student, and I see a broad gap between the way I am treated and the treatment of minorities in my neighborhood–particularly young, black men. Law enforcement officers in poor areas do seem to err on the side of caution when involved with these men. George Zimmerman’s reaction to Trayvon Martin stems from the same tendency toward caution. We are left with a nagging question: is that caution racist?

Many, including myself, believe that the answer is yes.

That being said, I think race is irrelevant to the outcome of this trial. The missed point here is not why George Zimmerman followed Trayvon, but rather that he chose to get out of his truck at all.