I have been debating about whether or not I was going to write about the Trayvon Martin case. My hesitance is not because of lack of interest but rather a question of whether there is anything else left to say on the matter. NPR, facebook, and google (and I assume Twitter, which I avoid) have been heavily covering the jury's decision to acquit George Zimmerman on charges of manslaughter and second-degree murder. When I heard the news about the jury's decision, my heart dropped. How do we live in a world where a young black man can be stalked, gunned down on the street and his killer believes he acted in self-defense and in the best interests of his community?
We live in this world because of racism and guns.
Let me make a few things clear before I go further. I have never met Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, or any of the individuals related to them. I was not present in the courtroom to hear all the evidence presented on both sides. I am not a legal expert and frankly am not particularly interested in the nitty-gritty of what was required in order for a jury to find a defendant guilty of these particular charges. I am oppossed to the death penalty, but other than that I don't even have particularly strong feelings about what should happen to Zimmerman. I hope Martin's friends and family can somehow find peace. I hope (probably too optimistically) that George Zimmerman will somehow learn something from this. I hope that there is justice--Zimmerman will likely be seeing additional legal battles ahead of him. No one knows what the outcome of those cases will be. But I am know that this situation will continue to be on many people's radar. It will certainly be on mine.
Because honestly, this case is bigger than these two men (really, one adult and one teenager). Whether or not George Zimmerman intended it, his actions that rainy night have opened much needed conversations in this country. A conversation about racism. And a conversation about guns (oh wait, I am not sure we are having THAT conversation...)
Zimmerman does not deny shooting and killing Trayvon. He just claims that he did so in self-defense. Let's assume here for a second the "best case scenario." George Zimmerman is not a monster, but a man who is concerned about the safety of his community. A man who believes that owning a gun will make him feel safe. A man who believes that young black men are a threat. A man who thinks he is doing the right thing by following said young black man on a dark rainy night. A man who feels his life is threatened and who uses his gun to defend himself. A man who takes the life of a child, and believes he did the right thing.
Yup, we are pretty screwed here. Because our best case scenario is a chaotic mess that led to an AVOIDABLE tragedy in which a 17-year-old lost his life. In some ways I might feel better about this whole thing if I just believed that George Zimmerman is a terrible person and a rare outlier. Unfortunately, I think it is much more likely that Zimmerman is a (not so uncommon) product of our culture. Our racist, gun loving, individualistic, shoot-first-and-ask-questions later country. Which might make a lot of us terrible people.
Frankly, we won't get anywhere as a society unless we are willing to admit the role our entire culture had to play in this situation. I say this not to minimize George Zimmerman's personal responsibility for his actions, nor to imply that the situation is hopeless. In fact, I believe that by owning up to the role we play in our patriarchal and racist culture is the best way we can prevent tragedies like this from happening again. But that means we have to be willing to talk about racism, white privilege, racial profiling, and gun laws. Are you game?
I teach a diversity course to counselors-in-training and one of the topics that many of my white students struggle with is the concept of white privilege. I have been doing this for a while now, so I have a few tricks up my sleeve. One of those tricks involves showing a clip of Dave Chappelle's stand-up routine. [WARNING: involves drug use, and adult language]
After the video clip, I ask my students what it has to do with white privilege. This usually results in a long discussion where students try to make sense of racial profiling by the police. Because I am teaching in Pittsburgh, my classes are usually dominated by white students. Sometimes I have a student or two who identifies as African American. I have yet to have a white student who "gets" the point of the video: the relationship that most white Americans have with the police and the relationship that most African Americans have with the police is different. THAT is White Privilege.
Most of my students are shocked to learn this and had never even considered it. They (as had I) have taken for granted that the police exist to protect them. While they may have had "negative" encounters with the police (getting a ticket for speeding or underage drinking) they have never feared for their safety. They have never worried that they would be subjected to police brutality or shot by a police officer while walking home (unarmed) one night. They have not thought about the life-and-death consequences of racial profiling by the police. Because when even well intentioned police officers hold unexamined racist beliefs (e.g. that black men are criminals or threatening) those beliefs impact their actions. And when police officers are in situations where they have to make decisions in the spur of the moment, those decisions are influenced by their explicit AND implicit stereotypes. In this nation, we have given police power and authority that can be used in all sorts of ways. Oh, and guns.
In addition to highlighting the racism that persists in this country, Zimmerman's case reminds us of the dangers of citizens with guns. Not only can police offices make decisions based on internalized racist beliefs (whether they explicitly endorse them or not) now untrained citizens can do it too! Isn't that what the founding fathers intended with the 2nd Amendment? Nope. I don't think so. The easy access to guns means people can make mistakes that cost others their lives.
Most of us White Americans live in blissful ignorance of the realities that many African Americans (especially young men) face in this country. Of the ways families try to teach their children to protect themselves. It is time for us to wake up. It is time for us to take responsibility to address racial profiling, to combat our own racist beliefs, to challenge racist media that presents young black men as "thugs", to question the prison industrial complex and the war on drugs. It is time for us to challenge the "George Zimmermans" in our lives when they make racist comments. Or cross over to the other side of the road when they see a black man. Or buy a gun for their "safety."
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
--Martin Luther King, Jr. ( also a victim of gun violence)
That day did not come in time to save the life of Trayvon Martin. May that day come soon.
In this season of Supreme Court case decisions, you have probably heard about significant decisions impacting civil rights in the USA. I have heard and read numerous stories and responses to the case overturning DOMA and the case that will likely lead to significant changes in voting laws across the south. But there is one case that has received little coverage (and some of it has been horribly inaccurate). The case's official title is Adoptive Couple V Baby Girl , but many people are referring to it as the "Baby Veronica case." I first heard about the case while listening to a radiolab podcast in May. While this was the first I had heard about this specific case, the issues in it were not new to me. The heart of the case involves a law called the Indian Child Welfare Act, which was passed in 1978. The intention was to end unjust and discriminatory practices by social workers and legal systems that led to the termination of Indian parental rights and adoption by white families.
Before I go on about this case, I think it is important to provide a bit of history here. I teach a required diversity course to master's students, and have learned that many Americans know little to no Native American history. I admit I was a bit shocked at first to learn how little students knew, given the rich history of Native Americans in Pennsylvania. This includes tribes who were part of the Iroquois Confederacy, the group whose constitution was used as a framework for the US constitution. That's right, contrary to popular belief, the "founding fathers' did not pull the whole thing out of thin air. But I digress...
The history I want to share is my own family's. This is a story that I was told growing up. See I am part Cherokee. My maternal grandmother grew up on and off a reservation in Idaho. She did not speak much about her experiences, for reasons that will soon become clear. My Grandma grew up during a time when Indian Boarding Schools were in full swing. Most of these boarding schools were modeled after the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, founded by Capt. Richard H Pratt whose motto was “Kill the Indian, and Save the Man”. The primary purpose of these schools was the forceful assimilation of Native American children. Children were taken from their families and immersed in European American culture. Most were forced to cut their hair, were given European names, were punished severely for speaking their native language or practicing their native religion and forced to abandon their Native American identity. Many children in these schools experienced physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Some studies estimate that the mortality rate of these schools was between 25%- 60%. This is how the war was waged on Indian Nations. And just in case you think this is all in the distant past, the peak enrollment in schools was in the 1970's, with an estimated 60,000 children in such environments in 1973. Eight years before I was born.
My grandmother's mother did not want her children to go to these "schools" so she packed up their stuff and moved them off the reservation as each child hit key ages. She avoided having them registered. She encouraged my grandmother and her siblings to not talk about being Indian. As a result, my grandmother grew up in poverty, without a stable family home, in constant fear, and feeling ashamed of her ethnicity. The terrible irony is that she experienced her own sort of forced assimilation, one based on survival.
But at least she didn't go to the boarding schools, where conditions might have been even worse.
The American Indian Movement and activism by Indian Nations lead to the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 which provided tribes with greater legal rights including the right to create their own educational institutions. This law led to the closure of many Indian boarding schools, but did not change the opinions of some who believed that Native children should be assimilated. Child welfare systems in many states used their authority to remove Indian children from their homes, terminate the rights of their parents, and place them in foster care systems or white homes. In 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed, in response to reports that 25-35% of Indian children nationwide (as high as 50-75% in some states) had been removed from their families and placed at a rate of nearly 90% in non-Indian homes.
The act has several provisions which are important in the Baby Veronica case. The act only applies to the members of a tribe who are under 18 and biological children of tribal members who are eligible for membership themselves (each nation has its own rules designating membership). The act specifies preferences for both foster care and adoption of Native children. In all cases, the extended family, then tribal members, then other Indian families are given priority. Parental rights can only be terminated if there is evidence "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the child is being harmed and requires a qualified expert witness. The act also requires that voluntary termination of parental rights is only valid if it is signed in front of a judge who has explained the consequences of the decision.
Baby Veronica was adopted by a white couple, without any of the preferred individuals being given an opportunity to adopt her first. Veronica's father admits that he signed away his parental rights to the child's mother (before she was born), but did not know the mother intended to give her up for adoption. As soon as he learned of the adoption, he filed a lawsuit and was awarded custody on the basis that the ICWA had been violated. The case made its way to the Supreme Court who decided that ICWA did not apply in this case, because the father had never had custody (Veronica was adopted at birth). It has been sent down to the lower courts to sort out.
It is important to note that not all American Indians have the same opinion about Veronica's case, and some feel that ICWA is outdated and no longer needed. But I fear that the decision, and the general lack of knowledge about the issues, is a dangerous sign. I want to believe that even if the act was overturned, custody cases involving Indian children would be decided based on the best interests of the child and not racism, but I don't have that faith in our systems. How could I?
My grandmother passed away two summers ago, so I can't ask her what she thinks of the case. She probably would avoid the subject anyway--she was always reticent about her identity. As a result I have had to sort out my multi-racial identity (my maternal grandfather is Irish and my father is white of English decent) through conversations with my mom and my own investigations.
The ugly legacy of the boarding schools lives on. Hopefully the future will be brighter for Veronica and her family.
Where were you when the decision was announced? DOMA, the the Defense of Marriage Act, a law signed by Bill Clinton in 1996 preventing the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage, was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court last week. I was anxiously awaiting the announcement, along with my colleagues and a student whose oral comprehensive exam board I was sitting on. As soon as the exam finished we read the news reports--it was almost hard to believe. I had goose bumps and was choked up by the news. This moment has been so long in coming.
The decision is a victory for everyone invested in equality; it affirms that married couples deserve to be treated with respect and equal treatment by the US federal government, regardless of the sexual orientation of the individuals in the relationship. It serves as a reminder to those who would discriminate against people who are different from them that the values of this country are based in equal treatment for everyone. While the day-to-day realities of this society demonstrate that those values are not always put into practice, the tide is changing. The decision should also serve as a warning to bigots and those whose hearts are filled with hate--we will not stop fighting for love and equality. Sometimes the fight will move painfully slowly. There is still much work to be done to secure equal rights for same-sex couples, and there are many whose voices have been filled with outrage over this decision. But we will keep moving forward, we will keep fighting for what is right. And we will celebrate this victory!
EMPOWERTAINMENT aims to take a critical look at media in regards to how gender and women/girls are portrayed. From popular articles, videos, and websites, to original submissions, we want to not only examine the media and its relation to gender, but help shift it.