European media coverage of the 17-year-old's killing seems to reinforce pre-2008 ideas about race in the U.S.
A streetside memorial for Trayvon Martin Reuters
Sometimes, media coverage of a story becomes a story in its own right. It happened with Occupy Wall Street this past fall. Now it is happening with the Trayvon Martin case, where an unarmed African American 17-year-old was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch captain who claims he acted in self defense.
Much of the European media coverage portrays the incident as part of a larger trend: what they seem to see as the pervasive and enduring problem of American racism.
European outlets, of course, aren't the only ones to suggest that Trayvon Martin's death, and particularly the lack of a local police investigation, involved racism. That's a premise of the recenthoodieprotests in the U.S., as well. Race and racism lie at the heart of the Trayvon Martin uproar in the U.S.
European coverage seems to call out the racism in the Trayvon Martin case as a clear continuance of U.S. history. A Spanish headline announced that Martin's death has "reopened debate in the U.S." Multiple Frenchsummaries refer to Martin's "murder," rather than -- as mainstream American papers print to avoid controversy and to be legally consistent -- his "death," "shooting," or "killing." Most significantly, articles tend to connect Trayvon Martin, American history, and Barack Obama.
European newspapers do not speak with one voice, nor do they necessarily reflect the views of all ordinary Europeans. But certain common European assumptions about America are clearly discernible in the European Trayvon Martin coverage. As Charles Hawley wrote in Der Spiegel immediately after the 2008 election: "America, many Europeans were certain, was far too racist a country to elect a black man to occupy the White House."
Now, this sentiment is popping up again. An article in Germany's Die Welt refers to "America's original sin is slavery, its daily scourge of violence." It also brings up the NRA. An article in Italy's La Repubblica also calls out the NRA, the "powerful gun lobby," and brings up "the fanatical alter boy from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum," as well as the so-called birthers.
As disparate as these different references may seem, there's a common theme. It's not just that Trayvon Martin's death involved racism, seems to be the European perspective, but that this racism is uniquely American. It is, from across the Atlantic, seen as the counter-evidence to Barack Obama's election.
Though this point is only made explicitly in a few articles -- Uwe Schmitt sees the case as "plung[ing] the country into racial conflict that seemed after Obama's election to be suppressed and almost forgotten" -- it's lurking within many, many others. Vittorio Zucconi suggests that Barack Obama has been ignoring racial issues and that Trayvon Martin has forced him to confront them. He and others seem to mean that Americans have been ignoring racial issues, for which Barack Obama was their cosmetic fix. Trayvon Martin has forced Americans to confront the complacency they acquired in electing Obama.
You can agree or disagree with this reading. What's clear, however, is that the Trayvon Martin case is starting to look like Rorschach test not only among American media outlets but in European ones as well. If the individuals writing these articles actually believed, back in 2008, that America was "too racist" to elect a black president, the Martin case, then, presents the perfect datapoint for reverting assumptions to the earlier, pre-Obama baseline for American racism. And that seems to be exactly how it's being interpreted.
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On Capitol Hill, Speaker Paul Ryan resigned after proving unable to pass a budget, or much else. The House burned through two more speakers and one “acting” speaker, a job invented following four speakerless months. The Senate, meanwhile, is tied in knots by wannabe presidents and aspiring talk-show hosts, who use the chamber as a social-media platform to build their brands by obstructing—well, everything. The Defense Department is among hundreds of agencies that have not been reauthorized, the government has shut down three times, and, yes, it finally happened: The United States briefly defaulted on the national debt, precipitating a market collapse and an economic downturn. No one wanted that outcome, but no one was able to prevent it.
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Lest we think the Euroskepticism displayed this week by British voters is new, let me present a scene from the BBC’s Yes, Minister, a comedy about the U.K. civil service’s relationship with a minister. The series ran from 1980 to ’84 (and, yes, it was funny), at a time when the European Union was a mere glint in its founders’ eyes.
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In many ways, the seeds of the U.K.’s Thursday referendum on its membership in the European Union were sown soon after the country joined the now-defunct EEC in 1973. Then, as now, the ruling Conservative Party and opposition Labour, along with the rest of the country, were deeply divided over the issue. In the run-up to the general election the following year, Labour promised in its manifesto to put the U.K.’s EEC membership to a public referendum. Labour eventually came to power and Parliament passed the Referendum Act in 1975, fulfilling that campaign promise. The vote was held on June 5, 1975, and the result was what the political establishment had hoped for: an overwhelming 67 percent of voters supported the country’s EEC membership.
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I am 52 years old. I’ve lived in Northeast Ohio all my life. I know what Cleveland feels like. And it’s not this.
In the ballpark that day, 25,269 of us sat watching a pitcher’s duel, and the place was palpably subdued. The announcer and digitized big-screen signage made no acknowledgement of the city’s excitement over the Cavaliers. There were no chants of “Let’s Go Cavs,” no special seventh-inning-stretch cheer for the Indians’ basketball brothers, who play next door in the Quicken Loans Arena, which in a few weeks will host the Republican National Convention.
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American society increasingly mistakes intelligence for human worth.
As recently as the 1950s, possessing only middling intelligence was not likely to severely limit your life’s trajectory. IQ wasn’t a big factor in whom you married, where you lived, or what others thought of you. The qualifications for a good job, whether on an assembly line or behind a desk, mostly revolved around integrity, work ethic, and a knack for getting along—bosses didn’t routinely expect college degrees, much less ask to see SAT scores. As one account of the era put it, hiring decisions were “based on a candidate having a critical skill or two and on soft factors such as eagerness, appearance, family background, and physical characteristics.”
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American commentators have spent the weekend pondering the similarities between Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and America’s impending vote on whether to take leave it of its senses by electing Donald Trump. The similarities have been well-rehearsed: The supporters of Brexit—like the supporters of Trump--are older, non-college educated, non-urban, distrustful of elites, xenophobic, and nostalgic. Moreover, many British commentators discounted polls showing that Brexit might win just as many American commentators, myself very much included, discounted polls showing that Trump might win the Republican nomination. Brexit may even result in the installation this fall of a new British prime minister, Boris Johnson, who is entertaining, self-promoting, vaguely racist, doughy, and orange. It’s all too familiar.
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