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Why race still matters in America

It is customary in the wake of a major racial eruption to say that we Americans need to have a national conversation on race. Yet the fury surrounding the death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin shows why it is so hard for us to hold that conversation.

The shooting of the unarmed 17-year-old has sparked nationwide protests and reignited chatter all the way to the White House about racial profiling, gun laws, hate-crime laws and even the risks of wearing a hoodie, especially if you're a young, black male outside after dark.

Among the few undisputed facts are these: Martin was fatally shot on the night of Feb. 26 by George Zimmerman, 28, a neighborhood watch volunteer, who thought the black youth walking through Zimmerman's gated community looked "real suspicious." The teen turned out to be carrying nothing more sinister than a package of Skittles and a can of iced tea.

In the account Zimmerman gave police that night, which was later leaked to the Orlando Sentinel, he said that Martin had punched him and then repeatedly slammed his head into the sidewalk after they exchanged words in the moments before the shooting. Zimmerman's lawyer says his client was treated by paramedics for a broken nose and other injuries.

Police released Zimmerman after he claimed he shot Martin in self-defense. The state's controversial Stand Your Ground law allows individuals to use deadly force against someone if they believe their safety or life is in danger. But in the released 911 calls, Zimmerman is heard deciding, against a dispatcher's advice, to follow Martin, whom he suspected was "up to no good." Sponsors of the law say such pursuit would invalidate a Stand Your Ground defense.

We hear hints of Zimmerman's defense from his family and friends. In a letter to the Sentinel, his father Robert Zimmerman described his son as a nonracist child of a white father and a Hispanic mother, and a member of a multiracial family that included some black relatives. That doesn't mean George Zimmerman couldn't be racist, although it helps his case. If the alleged racial slur that many hear in an audio clip from his 911 call is introduced as evidence against him, he'll need all the help he can get.

All of which raises a larger question in this tragedy: How do you define "racist?" To some people, you have to be a cross-burning, hood-wearing Klansman to qualify. To others, any attempt to inject racial concerns into the public square is evidence of racism, judging by some of the mail I receive.

Conservatives in particular complain that they can't be candid about race with blacks or our white liberal allies without being guilt-tripped or being accused of racism. I respect their complaint. We've all been invited to a "conversation" that turned into a one-way lecture. To avoid the guilt game, both sides have to relinquish some of their innocence. That's not easy, especially when each side sees injustice in the other.

Ironically, the election of the nation's first black or, if you prefer, biracial president has made it more difficult to talk about race. Newt Gingrich, among some other conservative commentators, even objected to President Obama's mild acknowledgment of how the case resonated with him personally. "If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon," the president said.

My question is: How can we deal with racism if we are so skittish about recognizing that race exists?