Saturday, July 20, 2013

Weeping with the Parents of Trayvon Martin

With so many people blogging and so many news articles about Trayvon Martin and the George Zimmerman trial, I've wondered what I could possibly add that hasn't already been said.  But I'm a mother of teenagers myself, and I know Trayvon Martin's parents are weeping.  I must weep with them.

And in solidarity with them, and with parents like them everywhere, I must stand up and respond to the voices who are saying "This wasn't about race."

Actually, it was.  It is.  I'm not going to weigh in on whether George Zimmerman should have been convicted or not; I have been a member of a jury before, I think the jury did the best they could to arrive at the best verdict they could come up with given the instructions they were given in the criminal trial process.  But to say this incident, as it arose, as it progressed and as it horrifically concluded, was not about race, is to speak from the luxury of not having to live as Trayvon Martin and his family have always lived: in a world where, like it or not, race is what it's about-- on a daily basis.

Blogger Caryn Riswold puts it like this in her article "I Am Not Trayvon Martin":

In the months leading up to the trial of George Zimmerman, #IAmTrayvonMartin became a popular hashtag, a way for people to show support, empathy, solidarity. I think it’s important for me and all white people who work for racial justice to say: I Am Not Trayvon Martin. Like [other middle-class white people] . . . I generally perceive law enforcement to exist in order to protect me. I will not be hunted down on the street because of the color of my skin. I will not be suspected of stealing the nice car I might be driving or trying to get into. I have never been followed in a store by a clerk who is afraid I might steal something.

Understanding this is a base level of awareness of white privilege, necessary in order to dismantle the system that declares open season on young black men.

As a white person, I need to step away from the luxury of not being required to think about this.  If I'm going to follow Jesus, I need to follow "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." That means trying to see through their eyes.  It means trying to understand what my life would be like if I were them.

White privilege is "an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious . . . like an invisible weightless backpack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks."  Certain realities that I take for granted in my life-- realities that make my world easier for me and my children to live in-- simply do not exist for the person of color who might be walking down the street next to me.

White privilege means my son, if he goes out to get a snack in the evening-- even if he's wearing a hoodie-- will not automatically look over his shoulder.  No one has ever told him-- or had to tell him--that his very presence might be perceived as a threat.  If a policeman or someone in a neighborhood watch stops him, he might be startled or even nervous-- but he has no ingrained expectation that the confrontor is already most likely set against him, or that harm to him might result.

So I'm trying to think what it might be like to be Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon's mom.  Could I even let my son have the freedom a teenage boy needs as part of growing up, to leave the house and hang out with his friends, if I knew what Sybrina knew?  If I knew that the assumptions people were most likely to make about my son were not that he is probably peaceful and law-abiding, but just the opposite?

If I knew that my son also knew this-- knew that the deck was stacked against him before he even walked out the door?

That he might become wary and defensive as a result?

That his very wariness and defensiveness were most likely to be interpreted as dangers?

Blogger Libby Anne has written a piece on George Zimmerman and Race in America, in which she pulls together the results of a group of studies that make it clear that Trayvon Martin was no isolated case.   That there is a "subconscious but measurable preference to give white men the benefit of the doubt in these ambiguous situations."  (Sociological Images: Who Would You Shoot?)

That "[w]e are already biased in favor of the white defendant and against the black victim." (Sociological Images: Stand Your Ground Increases Racial Bias)

That "[a] finding of “justifiable homicide” is much more common in the case of a white-on-black killing than any other kind including a white and a black person." (Ibid.)

And this is exacerbated by the recent Stand Your Ground Laws which were in effect in the Martin-Zimmeran interaction, in which "a misinterpretation of physical clues could result in the use of deadly force, exacerbating culture, class, and race differences" resulting in "a disproportionately negative effect on minorities, persons from lower socioeconomic status, and young adults/juveniles."

What would it be like for my family, to have this be our reality?  And how can we so confidently say, having never experienced this reality, that Travyon Martin's death was not about race? 

As MSNBC's Analysis states: 

Many legal analysts, convinced that the prosecution did not have enough evidence to prove its case, had predicted the acquittal even before the trial began. Reasonable doubt, they said repeatedly. The state must persuade the jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

But reasonable doubt is an elastic standard, and it seems to work in favor of whites much more often than it does blacks. It is hard to imagine that a black “neighborhood watch volunteer” who pursued and killed a white kid under the same circumstances would have walked away a free man.

So I weep with Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton.  And I hope that somehow I can come alongside them to work for a different reality.  Because, like it or not, their reality is my reality. "No man is an island," John Donne famously said.  White privilege might give me many a free pass through situations that undermine my brothers and sisters of color, but those situations are part of the world I must live in, whether I blind myself to it or not.

An article in The Atlantic called "Trayvon Martin and the Irony of American Justice" put it in a nutshell for me:

The injustice inherent in the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman was not authored by a jury given a weak case. The jury's performance may be the least disturbing aspect of this entire affair. The injustice was authored by a country which has taken as its policy, for the lionshare of its history, to erect a pariah class. The killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman is not an error in programming. It is the correct result of forces we set in motion years ago and have done very little to arrest. . . You should not be troubled that George Zimmerman "got away" with the killing of Trayvon Martin, you should be troubled that you live in a country that ensures that Trayvon Martin will happen.

This is the nature of American justice.  And it is deeply, fundamentally unjust. And because of it my son is safe, while Tracy and Sybrina's son is dead.

How can I keep from weeping? 


J. K. Gayle said...

Thank you very much for your usual thoughtfulness in this post!

As a white person, I need to step away from the luxury of not being required to think about this. If I'm going to follow Jesus,...

Thanks especially for connecting your position/privilege and your practical theology.

Did you read the post by Brandy Daniels? She does similar sorts of things, powerfully keeping it personal and political in her "Theological Reflections in Light of the Injustice of Trayvon Martin’s Murder"

Kristen said...

Thanks, Kurt! I had not read that yet; thanks for the link!

Meliss said...

Here is a case of a black vigilante killing a white teenager - He was found not guilty even though the teen did not lay a finger on him.

Kristen said...

Ok-- I read up on this case. One difference I did note is that the white teen and his 2 friends were actually in the act of robbing cars, while Martin was simply walking. Also, Scott informed the boys that he had called 911 and that he was armed. From what I've read, Zimmerman didn't actually do anything to invoke the law, leading Martin to think he was being stalked.

Also, this one case doesn't actually negate anything I said above, about how it's much, much more likely for a person to get found not guilty if his victim is black and he is white. The fact is that this Roderick Scott case is comparatively exceptional, while the Martin case is largely illustrative of a common occurrence.

One exception does not disprove the existence of the institutional racism that resulted in Martin's death while committing no crime.