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Is It True What They Say About Black Men? by Jeremy Helligar

Is It True What They Say About Black Men?

by Jeremy Helligar

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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Belated Thoughts on the Death of Trayvon Martin and the George Zimmerman Verdict

For someone who has a strong opinion on just about everything, I've been uncharacteristically quiet when it comes to Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, the altercation in a Sanford, Florida, neighborhood that ended with the former's death on April 26, 2012, weeks after his 17th birthday, and the month-long murder trial that led to the latter's acquittal on July 13.

My near-silence has been due, in part, to the fact that, until recently, I hadn't been following the case closely, so in the days immediately after the verdict was announced, I didn't have all of the facts. I still don't -- not even after spending nearly one week watching CNN (one of two English-language channels I have access to in Berlin) almost religiously. But I've now heard and read enough commentary on the case to secure a fairly tight grasp on it.

The verdict: I'm still not sure where I stand. There are so many variables and blanks that need to be filled in (and likely never will be), questions that remain unanswered, and I'm about to add to them. (Keep reading.)

I'm not convinced that the jury didn't make the right decision. I'm not convinced that they did. I'm not convinced that this was a case of racial profiling or a racially motivated incident. I'm not convinced that it wasn't. I am convinced, however, that racism has become a too-easy scapegoat in the U.S. It's a collective knee-jerk reaction in the U.S. to cite it as the reason for any negative interaction between a white person and a black person, and Florida, one of the more divisive states in the union since the Presidential Election of 2000, is such an easy target.

I grew up in Kissimmee, Florida, in the '70s and '80, so I've experienced racism in the sunshine state firsthand. I can still remember the two rednecks in middle school whose favorite pastime was, apparently, antagonizing me. Every day, every time they walked by me on campus, they'd say, "I smell nigger."

Those words are even more horrifying to me now than they were back then. Clearly these guys were racist, but I wasn't afraid of them. I was more terrified of the black kids who picked on me on a daily basis because they did it with punches, ridiculing and physically assaulting me because I had a funny accent and, in their eyes, I acted too "white."

One morning, my father came to Denn John Middle School for a meeting with Vice-Principal Mr. Tate (who was black), to complain about a fellow black student who had been terrorizing me. When Mr. Tate called my classmate to his office and asked if the accusations were true, the bully denied everything. Mr. Tate, apparently unburdened by any concern for my welfare, said there was nothing he could do. After threatening Mr. Tate with legal action should any harm come to me in the future, my dad gave the guy who'd been harassing me a stern warning: "If you ever touch my son again, I will take care of you myself!" He never bothered me again (though there were plenty of other black kids who picked up the slack over the next few years).

To this day, I wonder how Mr. Tate would have reacted if my bully had been white, or if I had told him about the "I smell nigger" duo. In this politically correct age, the white-on-black bully might be called racist regardless of whether he actually does or says anything that could be construed as racist because for some, it's not possible for a white person, even one who wouldn't dream of walking around saying something like "I smell nigger," to dislike a perfectly harmless black kid for any reason that doesn't involve racism.

It might be pretty safe to level a charge like racism at a person who uses the N word (Paula Deen would know about that, and one imagines that she must be somewhat relieved to have the spotlight off of her), but what about a white person who simply doesn't like a black person, or argues with a black person, or accuses a black person of suspicious behavior?

What if the black person, unlike the middle-school me, is more than willing to defend himself? I don't like the idea of putting the victim on trial, but in the rush to canonize Trayvon Martin and turn him into a martyr (which he wasn't -- martyrdom is deliberate, and Trayvon was a guy walking home from a convenience store who became the victim of a most unfortunate encounter), we can't forget that, hoodie or not, he was hardly the perfect kid. Though he didn't have a criminal record, he had been in trouble in the past. This doesn't prove anything, but it does give us a more well-rounded view of Martin than the baby-faced innocent-looking image staring at us from under a hoodie. It's possible that before the shot that ended his life was fired, he gave as good as he got -- maybe even better.

All that said, I'm also not convinced that Zimmerman had no other alternative but too shoot. Even if he was getting his ass kicked by Martin, there's no evidence that his life was endangered to a degree that necessitated the use of deadly force. Martin, after all, was unarmed.

I do believe that the media's coverage of the case and of the trial blurred some of the facts and swayed public opinion. In the media (both the news media and social media), the case has seemed to be more about a hate crime (revolving around a hoodie), which is incredibly difficult to prove but always inflammatory enough to demand attention (and increased readership/viewership), than manslaughter, which was the prosecution's actual not-quite-airtight case. The million-dollar question shouldn't have been "Is George Zimmerman a racist?" but rather "Was it self-defense or murder?" One is not necessarily related to the other.

As for the committee that decided Zimmerman's fate, I've gone through the rigorous process of jury selection, and I'm not sure how a flammable case like this one ended up being decided by six people of the same gender, all women, not one of them black. Did lawyers for the prosecution or the defense really think this would guarantee an outcome that would be seen as fair and unbiased? Had even one of the jurors been black, would the outrage to the verdict be more muted and less focused on the racism angle and more on the fact that a man shot and killed an unarmed teenager?

While we are choosing sides, here are a few other things to consider:

  • Why must racism be a factor in every violent encounter that involves a black person and a white person? Is every white person who shoots an unarmed black person a racist? Is it possible that there are other motivations for white-on-black crimes? Even if Zimmerman had been found guilty as charged (of second-degree murder and manslaughter) and locked away as a killer, was there enough proof to condemn him as a racist, too?
  • Does it matter that Martin allegedly made racial slurs against Zimmerman? If Zimmerman were black and Martin had been Hispanic, how would people respond to Martin, knowing that he may have called Zimmerman a "nigger" while talking to a friend? Actually, Martin did allegedly refer to Zimmerman as a "nigga." Considering that Zimmerman has black ancestry on his mother's side, does that make Martin a racist? Martin was not the one on trial, but the rush to label a white person a racist while overlooking the possibly racist actions of a black person does highlight a collective tendency to rush to judgment of "white" people when they have any kind of negative interaction with black people.
  • If Trayvon Martin had been a white male, would Zimmerman's account of what happened have been in question? Would this story, lacking a compelling, sensationalist hook, even have made the evening news? Did the media latch onto it because it was an inherently divisive case that would guarantee months, years, of interested readership/viewership? Did they fan the flames with sometimes irresponsible reportage that was lacking in objectivity?
  • If Zimmerman were black, would this case have made it to trial, or would it have gone the way of so many black-on-black crimes -- like the ones that killed rappers Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. -- and gone unresolved, ultimately shoved aside?
  • Should we use this as another opportunity to inspect gun-control laws in the U.S.? Is it really a good idea to allow a non-police officer who works for a neighborhood watch and isn't trained in law enforcement or the proper professional use of a firearm to walk around with one, free to use it at his discretion and whim?
  • There's been a lot of criticism of Florida's "stand your ground" law, but is it the law that people have a problem with -- surely most of the folks crying foul wouldn't have a problem with a rape victim who takes out her assailant and gets off under "stand your ground" -- or the application of it in a case in which the victim is black? This morning I watched a CNN news report in which a Tampa Bay Times journalist presented findings that showed that the accused is more likely to get off under Florida's "stand your ground" defense if the victim is black (73% have) than if the victim is white (59% have), which is disconcerting. (Read about it here.) But those statistic numbers don't take into account the particulars of each case, which the CNN report, in typically biased TV-news fashion, failed to address.
  • What if Trayvon Martin hadn't been such a handsome photogenic youth? Did that immediately effect public opinion of him? U.S. President Barack Obama said that if he had a son he would look like Martin. Although he was criticized for the comment, I understand what he was saying. But would he have said it if Martin had been an unattractive youth who looked more "hood"? Would Martin's face have made it to so many t-shirts? Would people be using it as their Facebook profile photo?

We'll probably never know what went down for sure on that fateful night. Unlike similar past incidents that became front-page news (Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima), there was no photographic or video evidence and no dependable eyewitnesses. If Zimmerman is, in fact, guilty of everything protesters are accusing him of, we might never know. The only other person with the truth is not around to offer it, and he might not, even if he were. Perhaps Zimmerman got away with murder, but maybe he's also a victim of the very racist society that has, in large part, condemned him.

I only hope that the people with the power to hire in Sanford, Florida, aren't foolish enough to ever again give Zimmerman a gun and put him in a position of power where he might get to decide if anyone -- black or white -- gets to live or die. His actions probably have cost him any semblance of a normal life for the rest of his life. He deserves to have his license to shoot to kill again permanently revoked, too.
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