Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Who Killed Trayvon Martin?

Trayvon Martin, February 5, 1995 – February 26, 2012 

For my readers who are white--which, let’s face it, is probably most of my readership right now--this might be hard to read.  I can only attempt to mollify you with the fact that it is also hard to write. Remember, I’m white, too.  Despite this fact, I ask that you read it anyway. All the way through. I ask you to not only read, but to be vigilant when you see or feel your own defenses arise. Use your imagination and your courage to climb that defensive barrier to see what’s on the other side.  It’s painful, but it isn’t fatal, and I have to believe that such an act of bravery can offer some hope for us all. I have to believe this, or I’d sink into an abysmal depression.

I’m probably going to anger some people here. I wish I could tell you I’m sorry, but I’m not. I love you, Dear Readers, but I’m not sorry. Because I’m angry, too.

Back when I was a social work grad student at Smith (an institution that “officially” identifies itself as an “anti-racism” institution, while--at least, when I was there-- simultaneously ignoring the socioeconomic consequences of racism. Tuition was high, and the vast majority of my classmates were still white), I had a class called “sociocultural concepts” with a really great professor named Ken.  One focus of the class was an examination of the various factors that shape one’s worldview, for good or ill, and that tend to remain too often below a given individual’s awareness. That is, we often tend to assume that our worldview is shared by others--particularly if we happen to belong to the dominant race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or socioeconomic class of the place where we live.  In that instance, we have the luxury of ignoring other worldviews.  How nice for us. Also, particularly here in the good ol’ USA, we tend to think of our successes in meritocratic terms, even when our own merits are only part of the big picture.  Heck, we can even manage to see our failures in meritocratic terms, by which I mean that even when a situation isn’t so great, we tell ourselves it must be praiseworthy because, after all, it’s our situation (if you need an example here, try the US healthcare system, broken beyond belief, yet there are those fighting to preserve it in its current dismal state, insisting it’s “the best in the world”. No. For crying out loud, No, it’s not).

We can get very comfortable in our “group” at the expense of seeing or understanding others whom we don’t perceive as being part of that group. Sometimes I think this dampening of awareness and heightening of “otherness” is a willful; even purposeful compulsion we humans have, and I’ve written about it on this blog before.

As I’ve been working around the house today, I’ve been listening to the news and hearing a lot about the killing of young Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. Each time I hear a report about it, it brings tears to my eyes, then anger, then more tears.  I think of how afraid he must have been, how bewildered about what was happening.  I think of his parents and friends, the sorrow of their loss and their rage at the injustice of it, and at the fact that it is also nothing new. It’s been big and growing news for the past week--which is strange, since it happened last month. Why did it take this long?

Trayvon Martin, February 5, 1995 – February 26, 2012  

Back when I took that class at Smith, we watched a film that has stayed with me. It’s called “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” We were to write a paper discussing our emotional response to it. It was to be 2 or 3 pages, but I struggled to keep it within that limitation.  The movie was a documentary about the murder of Chinese-American Vincent Chin in Detroit, who was mistaken for Japanese and beaten to death while police apparently watched for a while, by two auto assembly line workers, angered by their perception that auto workers in the dominant Japan industry had robbed them of their jobs (you know, the jobs they were entitled to as Americans, even if American cars at the time were garbage). The killers had just left a strip club, so it would seem their lack of respect wasn’t reserved for Asians alone. The film documents the outrage the case generated when both of Chin’s murderers received ridiculously lenient “sentences”, if they could even be called sentences. The men served no jail time after a plea bargain, and

were given three years probation, fined $3,000 and ordered to pay $780 in court costs. In a response letter to protests from American Citizens for Justice, Kaufman said, "These weren't the kind of men you send to jail... You don't make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal." (Wikipedia and Helen Zia (2000). Asian American Dreams. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

My time at Smith was 10 years ago, though I can hardly believe that as I write it. Vincent Chin’s murder was 30 years ago, in 1982. And I realize that these tears I’ve shed in the last few days while listening to the news aren’t just because of Trayvon Martin, though that would be enough. It’s because of the realization of how little has changed. Sure, we have a black man in the White House, but what’s changed so much for minorities who don’t live on Pennsylvania Avenue?

I don’t know anyone personally who has said to me or in my presence that, because of Obama, we live in a “post-racial” society.  But I’ve heard talk of this; that is, I’ve heard people say that people say this. Do they really? Who are these people? Self-congratulatory white folks somewhere who voted for him and thought that was enough? I mean, really. . . who are they? And what kind of magic pills have they been taking?

I’ve also heard talk on the news and in commentaries that, had the situation been reversed, had a black man shot a white teenager, we wouldn’t be hearing about “stand your ground” laws. Sadly, I find this plausible, even probable. It’d make news, but a different kind of news. Now, if it was a black man shooting a black man, we wouldn’t be having the conversation at all. It wouldn’t make the national news.  It wouldn’t be considered newsworthy by those who make such determinations. In fact, this happens all the time.

I have nieces and nephews that I love, a lot.  More than I could adequately describe, really. I worry about them, worry about their health and happiness. But one thing that I, as the white aunt of these white children, have never worried about--even though the oldest of them has a few hoodies in his wardrobe and probably wouldn’t turn down an offer of Skittles and a soda--is that some paranoid maniac would hunt them down and shoot them in cold blood because they look “suspicious” (read: black). I can honestly say, one of the privileges of my white, middle-classness is that these thoughts never occurred to me. I have enough sense to know that this isn’t because my nieces and nephews are better kids, more deserving of freedom and safety. But think about it. Imagine you’re an African American parent who just turned off tonight’s news, and your honor-student son who, like most teenagers, likes to wear what all the kids are wearing--baggy pants, hoodie maybe, sneakers untied--tells you he wants to have the car tonight, to go to his white friend’s house. If you’re a parent, this might sound pretty familiar. But really--imagine you and your kid are black, if you aren’t.

How does that feel?
I tried it just now. It felt lousy, in a few different ways.
But only because I tried really hard to be honest about it.

How it must tear at them to be keenly aware of the world in which we live, to want to protect their kids from all the things that white parents fear, but more. How do you protect them from something as monumental and persistent and illogical as racism? How do you protect them from a culture and a nation built from institutions which support, and even depend upon, the perpetuation of this notion of “otherness” in its innumerable oppressive forms? How do you protect them, while simultaneously allowing them to feel good about the world? What a balancing act that must be.

Here’s the hardest part, though. I can cry for Trayvon and his family.  I can cry for minorities of all sorts, in general, as I try my best to understand what difficulties they face on a daily basis, still, in 2012. As a woman, I know some of those difficulties first-hand.  I can rail against and condemn George Zimmerman, Trayvon’s killer. And I do, unequivocally. But it would be disingenuous if that was all I was willing to do. It would not only be disingenuous--it would be useless.  Because without acknowledging those parts of Zimmerman that live inside me--albeit in a much milder form--I will only find myself railing again in a few weeks or months or years, when the next Trayvon Martin is in the headlines and the next police department under investigation, with most likely disappointing results.

No, that’s not what I mean to say--there can be no next, no other Trayvon. I’m sure his family would tell you and me that he was one of a kind; precious and irreplaceable. And of course, they’d be right.

In all likelihood, even Zimmerman didn’t become a racist overnight. Who failed to challenge his warped beliefs with other ideas? Who disagreed, but tacitly accepted them? Who made it safe for him to become what he is? What am I doing to challenge the knee-jerk, racist responses I have sometimes observed in myself?

Trayvon Martin

So, what can I do? What must I do? This is challenging, for a number of reasons. In a previous post I wrote called “The Other”, I talked about our need to “mythologize” about people, to fabricate collective identities for groups of people we perceive as different in some way, in order to reinforce our idealized self-image. Where real differences exist, we also mythologize the reasons for those differences--inferiority, deficiencies of character or intellect, etc. But what I didn’t mention in that piece was a quite sinister element to this mythologizing process, where we ferret out those who are “with us” and those who are “against us”--those who are willing to weave their own thread into the tapestry of our collective myth, and those who are suspect in their silence or dissent. The question looms: how far will we take the myth in order to belong? If I acknowledge real inequities in the world, if I acknowledge the flip-side of racism that comes in the form of unearned power and advantage, am I a traitor? Do I lose my own identity?

The short answer is “no”. You aren’t a traitor and you don’t lose your identity. You get the chance to really live up to your idealized self-image and the idealized image of your “group”. You get to shake off the myths and illusions, and really be who you are, warts and all, and to come to truly know who are these “others” you’ve heard so much about. You can stop pretending or trying to live up to a falsehood. You’re free to succeed or fail truly on your merits, as can others.

You get to stop being afraid.
We get to stop being afraid of each other.

In the title of this post, I wanted to extend the question posed in the movie about Vincent Chin, and include other victims of hate and ignorance and unconsciousness and cowardice: 

Who killed James Byrd?
I did.
Who killed Matthew Shepard?
You did.
Who killed Laci Peterson?
We did.
Who killed Tyler Clementi?
All of us.

In all of these, we might know who shot the gun or swung the bat, or tied the ropes, but if we look closely and honestly, we’ll see an ever-widening circle of culpability. We see our habitual silence in the face of injustices such as these. We see police or prosecutors who do nothing, and who protect their own, or protect the privileged. We pay to see comedians who tell derogatory jokes about gays and women. We look the other way when men go to strip clubs that exploit and objectify women, because "boys will be boys". We see news organizations that are only willing to focus on African Americans when they commit a crime, but seldom when they are the victims, and we say nothing about this. We see pictures and videos on TV of missing beautiful blonde daughters, while beautiful black daughters and sons disappear without mention every day, while Mexican sons and daughters are slaughtered by drug cartels. We say nothing when the co-worker disparages the race or sexuality of another co-worker. We allow paranoid remarks about our Muslim neighbors to go unchecked. We stay silent when some idiot speaks of being “Jew-ed down” on a deal. We allow real human beings to be reduced to epithets like “illegals” or “retards”. We allow women to be raped or abused, then accuse them of lying about it. We refuse to look inside and confront the enemy within.

In short, we allow a climate of suspicion, ignorance and fear to grow and to thrive because we can. Because we feel safe ignoring what we perceive as “other people’s” misfortune, forgetting our inescapable interconnectedness. As long as we’re not the targets, all is well. We are, apparently, quite content in our cowardice--all of us, at one time or another. Be honest--ask yourself where you’ve failed in this regard, failed to do what’s right, or at least speak up. See it, and make a vow to do better and create the kind of “global climate change” that we actually need. Even suspecting that I’ll sometimes fail, I’m making this vow, here and now. Will you?

So, who killed Trayvon Martin?
Perhaps the more apt question is, “Who didn’t?”

[3/25/12: as an update since the initial posting of this essay, I'd like to sadly add one more to the list of questions above: Who killed Shaima Alawadi ? ]

Related, and worth reading:

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, by Peggy McIntosh

The Trayvon Martin Story is Too Perfect, by Tommy Christopher

A Mother's Reflections on the Death of Trayvon Martin, by Frances Cudjoe Waters

How to Talk to Young Black Boys About Trayvon Martin, by Toure'

Florida Teen's Killing a Parent's Greatest Fear, by Corey Dade

Trayvon Martin was Afraid, Too, by Michel Martin

Trayvon, Emmmett and Dangerous Black Bodies, by the Rev. Jacqueline J. Lewis, Ph.D.