Trayvon Martin and American Exceptionalism

Having just read Joanna Brooks’ and Anthea Butler’s powerful and moving reflections on the case of Trayvon Martin, I then heard an appropriately grave and passionate President Obama comment that, “If I had a son he’d look like Trayvon.” Then he called for “all of us as Americans [to] take this with the seriousness that it deserves.”

This led me to reflect a little more on how the question of “American exceptionalism” relates to the case. By this term, I roughly mean the idea that the national project of the United States—whether conceived as especially democratic, or especially chosen and blessed by God, or often both—has a distinctive and unusually promising virtue, mission, and destiny.

I think Anthea is right on target when she zeroes in on this important discourse. But at the same time, the discourse is immensely slippery in ways that merit further reflection. Following Anthea’s lead, I too would stress how it is often used to discount and cover-up ongoing structural racism, so I write primarily to underline her reflections.

Yet one must also grant that exceptionalism can be used (as Martin Luther King Jr. used it, for example) to combat racism, within an underlying logic of “exceptional-democracy-versus-exceptional-racism.” In the work of King at his best, and in many other significant contexts, it has proved its value for anti-racist projects. Could the way that Obama evoked it this morning be another such context? One can hope.

Because the exceptionalist discourse and its associated buzzwords (pluralism, democracy, equal rights, multicultural, progress, colorblindness) can slide around and change meanings in these ways, “it” is not one thing. Are “we” (“the Americans”) exceptionally racist? Are “we” exceptionally promising in our multiculturalism? Are “we” exceptionally good at denying how racist we are because we’ve been taught to think we’re exceptionally multi-cultural or even “post-racial”?

I most often stress the third of these options—especially on days like today, when the whole world can see the ongoing legacies of racism in US culture, politics, and law. So here’s at least one cheer for Obama—anyone who wants to evoke the promise of US democracy needs to take this “with the seriousness that it deserves.” But here, also, is a worry: can we take it with the appropriate seriousness within a public discourse shaped by exceptionalism? This is an open question—and an open wound too.

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