Trayvon: a black and white issue?
10th grade. High school. Bell rings. P.E. is over. Time to hit the lockers and get changed. I usually waited, though. I tried to be the last one off the basketball court so that I could avoid him. “Him” being the tall black guy in my class who terrorized me week-in and week-out. Sometimes it was just name-calling. You know, “whitey”. Stuff like that. Other times it was throwing me up against the wall or picking me up by the shirt and hurling homophobic epithets at me. I’d leave with bruises sometimes, but would just laugh it off if any of my friends asked me what happened.
Once after taking the bus home from school, I found myself locked out of my house, having lost my keys. As fate would have it, there was a gang that just happened to be strolling through my neighborhood at that very moment. Lucky me. One of the guys in the gang—a black guy—pulled a knife on me and thrust me up against the door of my house. I was forced to choose between kissing his foot in front of his friends or getting stabbed. Sad to say, I didn’t have the courage to take a knife wound that day.
Before I got married, I was paying at the outside window of a gas station late at night. A black man approached me and asked me for some money but I didn’t really have any to give. Minutes later, I found myself with a gun to the back of my head, this same man now not asking, but demanding money.
When my wife and I decided to move from Atlanta to Boston in 2006 to finish my degree, we rented out our house to two close friends of ours. The agreement was based largely on trust (a big no-no, I know), but we had no reason to think we would be let down. A year later, the rent payments started coming in late. Despite numerous grace periods, it wasn’t long before payments stopped altogether, with no explanation. Two of our close friends—both black—had now betrayed our trust and left us thousands and thousands of dollars in debt.
Several weeks ago, a young black man in a hoodie was killed by a Hispanic man in Sanford, Florida. No matter who you are or where you come from, when you heard the news about Trayvon and Zimmerman, your initial reaction was most likely based on your skin color and your experience with people of different skin color or ethnicity. And because of your different experiences (or lack thereof), it is likely that you were seeking (or at least had an inclination/temptation to seek) an explanation of the situation that would confirm your own biases/suspicions.
Based on the stories I’ve related to you above, you would probably think that my initial inclination would be to come to the defense of Zimmermann. Surely with all of the injustices perpetrated upon me by black people I would have developed a hatred or distrust of African Americans. But you would be basing your judgment on incomplete information, because I haven’t given you the whole story.
You see, growing up, my parents were instructors at a college of sorts. One of the students was a black man named Kelly who used to take time with me weekly on the basketball court, teaching me the basics of how to play.
In 10th grade, one of the first and few people to befriend me was my chemistry partner, a black guy named Mahir. Mahir was hilarious and got us both in trouble with the teacher more than once, as I recall.
Out of high school, my first “responsible” job was as an assistant music director, working under my friend Bill. Bill has for years mentored young black men, and he took me under his wing as well. I really thought I knew it all, but I had a lot to learn in the way of work ethic, accountability and leadership.
I also conveniently left out the fact that there were many times in my childhood (particularly while attending a nearly-all-white private Christian school) that I was physically bullied by plenty of Caucasian students, publicly belittled by white teachers or verbally berated by white music instructors. But then, that wouldn’t be as interesting, would it?
The first news most people heard of the Trayvon/Zimmerman tragedy was almost immediately tainted by the racially-charged politicking of some black politicians. But as the news has unfolded and details have emerged, we have learned that the case is not as clear cut as it first appeared to be. Others in the black community have stepped forward (including a friend of the man who shot Trayvon) to ask that those tempted to rush to judgment would let justice run its course. The public outcry and rallies (not to mention consumeristic exploitation) seem to have been based on incomplete information. Not necessarily false information, mind you, but information that at best only shows part of the story.
I do not mean to imply that there is no injustice in the killing of Trayvon, or that racism does not exist in America and, particularly, in the area of the country where the shooting took place. (If anything, I think the conversation should take place around the issue of gun control, gun ownership and the carrying of concealed firearms in public, but that’s a different blog post.)
Instead what I am trying to get at is the issue of what we choose to believe.
I grew up hearing a grandmother mumbling racist remarks under her breath whenever a non-white person would come on the television. I also grew up witnessing my parents (Salvation Army officers) extend charity and courtesy to everyone they came in contact with, regardless of race. Based on those formative experiences and my life experiences, I have the option of choosing either to believe negative stereotypes or to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. I could choose to have selective memory and say that Trayvon probably got what he deserved (whether or not it’s true). Or I could choose to reserve judgment until all the evidence has been aired. I could choose to treat people on an individual basis, judging them on the “content of their character.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Regardless of whether race had any part to play in the Trayvon shooting, the cultural tragedy (above and beyond the personal tragedy for Trayvon’s family) is the apparent rush to judgment by some (in the media, in political establishments and in special interest groups) who cannot seem to see any issue but through the lens of racism, which in turn, ironically, makes their statements seem racist. To them I would paraphrase Dr. King and say that racism cannot drive out racism: only true justice can do that.
It may well turn out that race played a factor in the killing of Trayvon. It is certain that race is playing a factor in the reaction. It’s impossible to divorce race from the equation completely. Anytime someone is killed by a member of a different race—and, in America especially (given our nation’s history), when a black man is killed by a lighter skinned man—there is the propensity for the population identifying with the victim to vilify the other race entirely. But it is possible to withhold judgment and refrain from race-baiting while seeking justice and allowing our judicial process the chance to evaluate the entire body of evidence.
And that is what we should do.