Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Ballad of George and Trayvon

I'm willing to buy completely that racism played no part in the tragedy of Trayvon Martin's death. Zimmerman was obsessed with policing his neighborhood and being the hero; he was bound to run into trouble at some point with someone he deemed to suspicious or someone who wasn't willing to humor his foibles.

Just because someone isn't thinking about race in a given situation, doesn't mean race isn't a factor. Racial stereotypes are a part of our culture, whether we like it or not. They shape the way we respond to each other - all of us. There may be fewer black people who agree with the stereotype of young black men as thugs, but those people are aware of and respond to the stereotype like everyone else. There may be fewer white people who believe southern whites are uneducated hicks, but that doesn't make the stereotype any less real.

I suspect more people are aware of such stereotypes and the influence of them on their own thoughts and actions than are willing to admit it. I spent quite a bit of time with black, urban youth - plenty to recognize the damage of such stereotypes. Still, I think differently when I see a group of black kids on the street than when I see white ones.

I hope being aware of the stereotype allows me to react purposefully and not reactionarily - avoiding bias in the way I treat people. I doubt I succeed all the time. Our minds are too hardwired for patterns to fully avoid it. We take experience, whether its ours or the experience we heard second hand through the media and we form generalizations. Kids these days are less likely to be victims of crime, but we're much more overprotective because a generalization of danger has built up.

Every sensationalized story in the media about a corrupt cop or violent terrorist pulls far above their actual weight in changing culture. Stereotypes affect the way people see those who look like them and those who don't. They permeate well beyond the capacity of even the most self-aware among us to decipher.

It's not just race, of course, gender, appearance, erudition, manner of dress, occupation, all of it affects our responses and actions based on generalizations that have little to do with reality. We are rational beings, but not entirely. We rely still a lot on instinct. In times of stress, even more so.

One of the most troubling images for me from this whole affair is this one:

I first saw it on a blog post from Bryan Todd, who talks about the flip side of the issue. My post deals with why things happen; his deals with why we're so outraged.

One of the most prominent arguments against the death penalty is the lack of ability our system has to dole it our fairly. I'm against the death penalty because I'm against killing, but most people are against it not because they disagree with it, but because there's overwhelming evidence we hand down a death sentence unfairly across racial and economic (and even intellectual) lines. It's a powerful practical argument, beyond any of the moral discussions involved.

Something similar can be said for these self-defense statutes, which came into play in Zimmerman's case. Beyond any moral argument (and for the record, I'm against killing in self defense, because I'm against killing), there is the overwhelming evidence that we give some people the benefit of the doubt because of their skin color.

Many out there say this is evidence of racism. I don't agree. I believe racism exists and plays a part in these numbers - I just think it's a negligible part. I think our stereotypes, those perceptions, generalizations we all create, have marred our society. I'm not sure anybody can be compared equivalently with those of a different skin color. We just don't see ourselves as equals - again, not that's we're consciously biased, but that our results betray the reality of the situation.

This is a systemic evil. I'm not one to go in for notions of demons and demonic activity in the world. I am, however, quite certain that some evils exist, which humans created through individual action, whose repercussions have grown beyond any human ability to stop. I have hope that, over time, in the same way individual actions can build systemic evil into something larger than our ability to control, that over time, our individual actions might just be able to do the opposite.

It takes looking at the big picture. We have to be able to say "race plays a factor" in things without necessarily subjecting individuals to charges of racism. Yes, we've all got racial bias that infects our lives, it's true. Some even have overt racist hatred and act upon it. I'm not denying racism. I'm saying we're never going to be able to address it without taking a broader view and trusting each other. Not trusting each other to be honest or fair or unbiased, but trusting each other to be flawed and biased and willing to overcome those flaws in exchange for grace.

No one is going to admit the bias they genuinely see in themselves, if they think they'll be vilified and raked over the coals. We're especially hesitant to talk to people about race who look different than us because those people have a genuine right to be offended by what we say. We're going to have to learn to let things go in liue of the greater good.

It takes looking at the big picture, but it also takes acting intentionally in small ways. I'm pretty convinced that Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman would both be alive and happier today if they'd regularly spent time at a neighborhood cookout. If they knew each other outside of suspicious confrontations on the street. I'm really convinced that those public epithets being hurled around would not be so sharp if we knew the people to whom we've aimed them.

My neighborhood is racially diverse. Yet it's pretty clear that people who don't look line one another don't talk. At least not often and not easily. It's just more difficult for us to make friends and have conversation when we're terrified of saying something wrong, of playing into a stereotype of not having the other person understand our perspective. It just is.

We live in a diverse world, but we're awfully segregated when it comes to our serious relationships. Diversity doesn't mean much if we're not incorporating it into our lives. We've got to make the difficult effort to cross those boundaries on our own streets, so we can better address them in the streets (and in courtrooms, too).

I'm willing to give George Zimmerman the benefit of the doubt that race wasn't a factor in his analysis of Trayvon Martin's suspiciousness. I think it's silly to say race wasn't a factor, just because he may not have overtly or consciously broached the idea.

This story, the ballad of George and Trayvon, is played out in schools, businesses, streets, homes, and neighborhoods all over the world everyday. This particular interaction gets more attention because of the tragic loss of life. Yet it's all of those other interactions (or lack thereof) that feed into and produce the kinds of things we saw in Florida.

We've got to do better - and, please, let me know when you're free for dinner; we need to spend more time together.

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