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.
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.