The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
Now is a critical juncture between overwhelm and apathy about the George Zimmerman trial and the “not guilty” verdict handed down on July 13th. Some of us have read so many articles, written so many online comments, and been to so many rallies we are burned out and exhausted. Some of us think all the hoopla is irrelevant and we should just move on. Some are just now emerging from several days of depression and despair. Others want to hide.
According to a Gallup poll on Monday, an overwhelming 85% of Blacks say the verdict in the case was wrong. A majority of Whites (54%) say the verdict was right. Overall 43% of USians say it was right and 40% say it was wrong.
Now is the time to start having the conversations we’re not having. To begin the dialogue, here are some of the more common misconceptions I’ve noticed at play so far, especially among White people, with regards to this case and the verdict:
They’re just playing the race card. What card is that? Is that the card someone pulls to get their way when nothing else is working? The painful reality is that some people of color may sometimes pull The Card — consciously or unconsciously. But categorically dismissing the concerns of people of color as pulling some kind of race card is disrespectful and condescending. A more effective response is curiosity and exploration of that person’s experience and concerns, taking them seriously, and trying sincerely to understand them in that person’s context.
It’s also an invitation to consider why you think a person of color might want or need to pull The Card in the first place. Could it be to create more equal power (which is lacking) or to be heard (when being ignored)? By dismissing a person of color’s racially-oriented concerns as “pulling the race card” you are actually calling out the fact that people of color do occupy a lesser power position, and are frequently ignored, dismissed and invalidated. Otherwise, why would there need to be A Card in the first place? The concept of the card is a reaction, not an action.
“I’ll stop talking about how Black I am when you stop reminding me.” ~ A haiku by Albuquerque poet laureate Hakim Bellamy
Trayvon shouldn’t have been… walking in the dark? walking in the rain? walking slowly? stopping, turning, looking? looking into houses? cutting through the back? showing “no purpose to where he was going”?
First, these are reports from Zimmerman, who was the only person there and stood to gain from portraying Martin as “suspicious”. Second, these are all subjective descriptions of behavior that, if true, might be concerning to some, but aren’t breaking the law or doing anything particularly sinister. Third, none of these behaviors merited Martin being shot. This is an attempt to blame the victim — Trayvon Martin — for Zimmerman’s actions.
Trayvon should have… gone home when Zimmerman confronted him? called 911? Once again, this is blaming the victim, and African Americans’ experience is that the police aren’t always on their side. Calling the police is not necessarily going to go well on their behalf, nor would running.
Learn more about African Americans’ experience with police, how they raise their boys (with good reason!) to be cautious, and how there seems to be no clear standard of how behave or hold themselves to avoid suspicion and targeting, and stay safe:
- Martin case: What Shall I Tell My Kids? — Anderson Cooper’s CNN interview with four affluent African American figures: ” …at what speed do you need to walk to not draw attention to yourself? how do you hold your bodies to telegraph that I am not the enemy? They have to be divested of innocence, either I have to do it, that loves them, or someone else has to do it that doesn’t love them. Horrible to say, when you deal with these folks, they might kill you. Tell them not to run from a stranger chasing you, or confronting you?”
- Lament From a White Father — “It’s time for white people — especially white parents — to listen, to learn, and to speak out on the terribly painful loss of Trayvon Martin. If my white 14-year-old son Luke had walked out that same night, in that same neighborhood, just to get a snack, he would have come back to his dad unharmed — and would still be with me and Joy today.”
Race didn’t matter in this case. If it didn’t matter, then what happened that rainy night on February 26, 2012 would have been the same had Zimmerman’s and Martin’s roles or races been reversed, and the outcome of the trial would have been the same. Most people of color — and large numbers of White people — doubt that it would. Arguing about whether or not this would be true is moot because it happened the way it happened. But arguing with people who believe it would have been different is counterproductive and destructive. It’s more helpful to listen, understand why African Americans feel this way, and believe that their experiences are real.
In general, the African American community believes that young Black men are treated as problems, not people, that the system is unjust. They are concerned that the jury was made up of all women and no African Americans. While racial profiling wasn’t allowed to be mentioned in the trial, many in the community believe that Zimmerman profiled Martin just because he was African American, and that played into a scenario with much bigger symbolism and consequences than just “a bad situation“.
Suspected racism in the justice system, deep-seated, secretive and historic, was the crux of the case for millions. … They did not believe it was just about a 17-year-old named Trayvon Martin being shot on a rainy night. They believed it was about generations of young black men targeted, stalked, suspected and brutalized by police, security guards, neighborhood watches and courts.
The fact that African Americans experience this treatment more than Whites is not because African Americans break the law more often, or are doing bad things that deserve this treatment. African Americans and people of color are much more frequently harassed, arrested, convicted, and jailed than Whites — for the same offenses. In non-Stand Your Ground states, whites are 250% more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than a white person who kills another white person; in Stand Your Ground states, that number jumps to 354%.
Some of the best evidence for racial disparities in the justice system is found in the research done by Michelle Alexander on The New Jim Crow showing the dramatic rates of incarceration of African Americans despite falling crime rates. Recent comments by Richard Cohen in the Washington Post about the Zimmerman case played on fears and stereotypes of rampant violence and crime committed by African American males and youth, illustrating the racism behind these fears which aren’t based in facts. Poverty has more to do with crime than race does.
If you still have doubts, watch this excellent video that illustrates how differently African American males are treated for doing the same suspicious behavior as a White man and a pretty White woman of comparable age.
White people don’t realize that often it’s our unconscious biases that drive our behaviors more than our conscious beliefs or intentions. But one of our problems is our inability to notice or acknowledge these unconscious biases, and the impact of our behaviors and words on others. Part of this is due to unearned White privilege that we are blind to. We can have awful, and inequitable, impacts on others even when we have good intentions, and without knowing it, unless we work to build our awareness, notice feedback from others, and adjust our behavior.
There were some unfortunate examples of White people — perhaps well-intended — making things worse following the verdict. Zimmerman’s attorney Mark O’Mara’s comment after the verdict that Zimmerman wouldn’t have been charged with a crime if he were Black was ludicrous (although he may have a point — if both Zimmerman and Martin were Black, perhaps not, but if Zimmerman were Black and Martin were White….?). Zimmerman’s minimal and feeble attempts to take responsibility or apologize were deeply offensive, as was his defense team’s unapologetic framing of Zimmerman as the victim, not the unarmed, dead, 17-year-old Martin.
Another example was the woman, identified only as Juror B37, who told Anderson Cooper that the fact that Trayvon Martin was Black was not an issue. She said “If there was another person—Spanish, white, Asian—if they came in the same situation as Trayvon did, I think George would have reacted the same way,” she said. “I think all of us thought race did not play a role. We never had that discussion. I think he just profiled him because he was the neighborhood watch and he profiled anyone that was acting strange.” She acknowledged the context of robberies in the neighborhood, acted as though race was a completely irrelevant piece of the context, and showed arrogance by speaking for the other jurors (which they quickly countered).
It’s a tremendous shame that race wasn’t part of the jurors’ discussion. The Martin family lawyer actually said ignoring race was a big mistake. Ignoring what made Zimmerman look twice at Martin was naïve, immature and dangerous.
As I’ve written about before, context is everything. The scene between Zimmerman and Martin has played out repeatedly over history — Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Rodney King, etc — and it hasn’t gone well for African Americans. (By the way, why do we remember the names of the victims and call the trials after them instead of the names of the actual individuals on trial?). President Obama, in his remarks last Friday, did an excellent job of describing the context and very real experiences of African Americans — past and present — in the US, including himself.
As my colleague Tamara Thorpe points out in a recent blog post, there is a gap between who we believe ourselves to be as a nation, and who we actually are. People of color tend to be much more aware of the Real America because it impacts them more. White people tend to be less aware and therefore cling to the Ideal, unwilling or unable to see and hear the ways we are not living up to our ideal. To call this out is not to be unpatriotic, or to hate America, but to be honest and invite us all to look at, take seriously, and deal with, our reality.
And we need to talk about it. We aren’t colorblind as a nation, and in many ways we are also colormute, stuck in simplistic conversations or avoiding them altogether out of fear of offending. As writer Errol Louis says, “… when we attempt a public discussion, participants start out in different mental and moral universes, with almost nothing in the way of shared assumptions, facts, or understanding of how society works…we mostly avoid talking about race publicly until it’s unavoidable—at which time we have a maximum of misunderstanding thanks to the long silences and are pretty much guaranteed to talk past one another.”
Plus it doesn’t help dialogue when we’re not all paying attention equally. A report by the Pew Research Center for the People & The Press showed a tremendous gap between African Americans and Whites in terms of who was paying attention to the trial, and this gap was much wider than 20 years ago during the L.A. 4 trial (Rodney King’s assailants) and the OJ Simpson trial. Why are White people showing less interest in stories of tremendous interest and importance to African Americans? What does this mean for our collective future?
And buying into the myth of colorblindness is dangerous. It’s not true to say “I don’t see color.” That’s not how our brains work, and it’s an attempt to pretend we’re not biased, prejudiced, or racist. But we are ALL biased, and we DO see color. The question, rather, is not whether or not we notice, but what we do with that information.
I do not see colorblindness in and of itself as a goal. The question is not whether we see color or race or ethnicity. The question is, having seen it, how do we treat each other? This is not about blindness, it is about seeing and then doing justice. ~ Theodore Shaw, NAACP ~
Read more excellent articles about the role of race in the Zimmerman case:
- Ask the White Guy: Why is Trayvon a White-on-Black Crime?
- Analysis: The race factor in George Zimmerman’s trial (CNN)
- America Isn’t Colorblind: We Need to Talk About Racism
- When the Myth Denies the Dream (statement from iMCI)
- Obama Trayvon Martin Speech Transcript: President Comments on George Zimmerman Verdict
- A Point of View: Blinded By the White
- Hispanic Or Not, We Are All Trayvon Martin
“We are a nation of laws”/the Rule of Law prevailed. Even though we would like to believe this, it’s not necessarily true. Many people, both inside and outside the USA, would dispute the fact that our nation is the paramount example of a law-abiding nation. Many argue that our beloved country has been built on breaking laws, from violating treaties with sovereign Native American nations to illegally invading and provoking Mexico to take half its territory, to violating the Geneva Convention overseas, to tolerating companies knowingly employing undocumented immigrants, to permitting illegal and unethical behavior on Wall Street. The argument of the rule of law comes up often when it comes to sanctioning individual behaviors (such as those of undocumented immigrants — another example) but turns a blind eye to massive, systemic, consistent violations by entire companies, industries, and governments.
The Rule of Law is neither applied, nor experienced, as equitable by large percentages of our population As mentioned, Whites who kill blacks in Stand Your Ground states are far more likely to be found justified in their killings, and there are many other examples of how the rules are not applied equally to all regardless of the behaviors they might have done to attract the attention of the justice system.
Finally, this is a touchy subject, but laws don’t always dictate what is right, moral or ethical. We have had laws authorizing slavery, allowing a husband beating his wife, preventing women from voting, and prohibiting interracial couples from marrying. Stating that we are a nation of laws or that the rule of law prevailed obscures the possibility that despite that fact, justice — the higher intention of laws — may not have been done.
The verdict was just, based on the facts of the case. Facts are not objective They exist in a context and are interpreted by humans, who are not objective machines, but meaning-making beings.
Journalist Martin Bashir argues, and many agree, that there are only three facts in this case that matter, making the verdict clearly unjust:
- A man with a gun chose to pursue an unarmed teenager who’d done nothing wrong.
- The man with the gun chose to initiate a confrontation with the teenager, after he was advised not to.
- As a result of the confrontation, the man with the gun shot the teenager to death.
Others question why Trayvon Martin didn’t have the right to “stand his ground” when threatened by Zimmerman, who was armed with a lethal weapon. Other cases have come to light where individuals were convicted for doing much less harm than Zimmerman did, in equally threatening situations. What about Marissa Alexander, jailed for shooting a warning shot into the ceiling to deter her violent husband? What about Trevor Dooley, a 71-year old convicted of manslaughter (in Florida) who shot and killed a White neighbor when the neighbor had his hands around his throat in a fight over a skateboarder?
Also, when Zimmerman shot and killed Martin, he was not arrested, tested for drug or alcohol abuse, nor did authorities gather much forensic evidence or even adequately question the neighbors, to the extent that at first Martin’s body went unidentified. Writer Eugene Robinson points out that Black boys aren’t allowed to be young, vulnerable, or make mistakes. They are seen as a menace, and so people assume that naturally Zimmerman would fear for his life in that situation, but Martin wouldn’t. Much more than facts played into this case and its verdict.
The system worked. “Zimmerman was found not guilt by a jury of his peers.” The jury consisted of six women, five of whom were White, five of whom were mothers. How are those peers of Zimmerman? Or Trayvon? Martin family attorney Ben Crump expressed satisfaction but reservation in the panel, saying, “With the makeup of this jury, the issue of whether every American can get equal justice no matter who serves on this jury panel will be answered. And we expect the jury pool to do its duty and follow the law.” To many, these words sound ironic now.
A system cannot fail those who it was never built to protect.“~ W.E.B. DuBois.
Read Charles Blow’s column on how the system failed Trayvon Martin in at least 15 ways. He says, “The idea of universal suspicion without individual evidence is what Americans find abhorrent and what black men in America must constantly fight.”
Others argue that the system did work, and that it’s designed to protect Whites’ interests and demand people of color justify their presence and behavior. Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, alluded to that fact in her remarks before a New York rally, asserting that Trayvon had a right to be where he was, and to walk home. Many have pointed out that Trayvon was put on trial more than Zimmerman was, asked to posthumously justify his presence and behavior more than Zimmerman, and that the trial humanized Zimmerman, but not Trayvon .
The system is imperfect, but it’s the best in the world. This raises some worthwhile questions: According to whom? According to what data? Compared to what, and where? Also, systems are created by people, and crimes are defined by people. How are laws written, and by whom? Who creates the systems and who do they serve best? How do those affect real people in their lives? Does this align with our intentions, or our values?
It’s a commonly known fact that the USA has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world (7%). By far. More than Cuba, more than Russian, Iran, South Africa, Venezuela, everyone. We also rank as having the highest crime rate. Perhaps our incarceration plan isn’t working?
Granted, there are immigrants to the US who enjoy a tremendous amount of freedom, safety, and relief compared to where they came from. This should not be underestimated. But to simply state we are The Best is limited at best and arrogant or dangerous at worst. Such an unexamined assertion prevents us from truly determining whether or not this is true, and whether we are living up to our values and ideals. It’s a cop out, and a lazy attempt to avoid responsibility for our weaknesses and our mistakes. We are better than that.
Here’s the real question — what would it mean if it were true? What would it mean if our legal system weren’t the best in the world? What would it mean if it failed in this case? What would it mean if it failed large portions of our population more often that others? What would it mean if, indeed, this verdict were not just?
What would it mean if African Americans’ experiences, concerns, feelings, and fears were all real, true, and valid?
Unless we all have the courage to be able to seriously entertain these questions, we will be unable to hear the truth. Until we are able to hear the truth, we won’t be able to do justice. And until we have justice we will be unable to see and treat each other as fellow humans, and we will continue to have major challenges “just getting along.”
What do I do now?
There are many concrete steps you can take, as a White person, to move our country forward in a more positive direction and reduce the chance this kind of tragedy will repeat itself or escalate. Pick just one to do! Or pick one to do each month for a year, then check in.
- TALK! Be brave. Talk about race. Talk to folks other than people who look like you. Have the conversation, no matter how awkward and uncomfortable it is! Follow some of my colleague Tamara Thorpe’s suggestions.
- LISTEN. Take other’s thoughts, feelings, stories, and experiences seriously. Believe that they are true.
- Have COURAGE to be wrong, to be awkward, to be vulnerable. To listen, hear, and believe others’ truths
- Brush off any callousness and insensitivity you may feel or speak about the experiences of people of color. Examine ways you hold unearned privilege and how that gives you unearned power and disadvantages that others do not possess.
- Breathe, take a moment, gather facts, notice your assumptions, notice your emotions, and then act. Train your “downstairs brain” to take a time out so you can get your “upstairs brain” online and head off any mistaken assumptions and overreactions. Our collective downstairs brains, and those of both Zimmerman and Martin, played into this tragedy from beginning to end but ultimately it was Zimmerman’s assumptions, misperceptions and overreactions that caused more harm than Martin’s.
- Examine your unconscious biases and take the Implicit Bias Tests. Contemplate your results. Discuss them with others.
- Whites tend to empathize less with Black peoples’ pain. Notice, challenge, and disrupt any tendency in yourself to not take Black people’s pain seriously.
- Read the list Sherry Weston et al. created of 33 things one can do to respond to the George Zimmerman Acquittal
- Join a Justice for Trayvon Martin organization in your local community
- Like Trayvon’s mother Sybrina Fulton, commit to work for children, against gun violence, and to change laws that are unjust and have inequitable impacts on people
- Think about how you can support President Obama’s four solutions — particularly about bolstering African American boys (this verdict has done serious damage to the hopes, trust, and psyches of young Black men and their families), doing some soul searching, and having a national conversation — and hold him and our leaders accountable for following through
- PARENTS: Talk to your children about race and Black people — here’s an article that describes 8 Things White Parents Should Teach About Black People
- PARENTS: Talk to your children about stereotypes and negative racial biases — kids do have biases! Explore where those come from, disrupt these thought patterns and teach them to exercise effective critical thinking skills
- TEACHERS: If you’re a teacher, school administrator or work with youth, take a look at, and use, some of the excellent resources and curricula on how to talk about and prepare youth to deal with racial profiling
** These tips are serious with a touch of sassy! They are not meant to imply that there are only two kinds of White people (“good” and “bad”), nor that all Good White People will agree with these tips (but they should! 🙂 ) nor that all White People who disagree with these tips are bad (well, maybe a little! 🙂 ). These tips are intended to help any and all Recovering Racists like me who (a) have good intentions (hence the “good”), (b) didn’t ask for the privilege that comes with white skin and European DNA and think that privilege is unfair, (b) recognize they have tremendous blindspots and ignorance due to that privilege and the power that comes with it, and (d) own their responsibility to end racism (that still exists today) regardless of what their European ancestors did or did not do during the previous history of the United States. These tips are also not just for Good White People, but also for People of Color Suffering from Internalized Oppression. All tips are based on actual scenarios I have experienced myself, been asked about by curious White people, or been told about by others who experienced them directly.