Mar 22, 2012



If Trayvon Martin had been, say, Todd Martin, a 17-year old white male, in the same neighborhood on the same evening, it wouldn’t have mattered that he was wearing a hoodie, looking at homes as he passed them by, or fiddling with his waistband. These, it should be noted, were the apparent indicators of criminality that Zimmerman felt compelled to share with the police during his 9-1-1 call, before opting to chase Martin himself, in brazen defiance of their explicit instruction to stay put. Had he been white, Martin’s humanity would have been clearly discernible to Zimmerman. But he was black, and male, and that alone inspired Zimmerman to conclude that there was “something wrong with this guy,” and that he appeared to be “on drugs,” a judgment Zimmerman felt qualified to render based on his extensive background in behavioral psychology, bested only by his prodigious law enforcement training, and by extensive and prodigious, in this case, I mean none whatsoever.

Indeed, if you do not know that Martin’s race (and more to the point, Zimmerman’s racism) is central to the former’s death at the hands of the latter, it may well be that you are incapable of ever comprehending even the most obvious manifestations of this nation’s longstanding racial drama. Worse still, it may suggest that you are so bereft of empathy as to render you morally and emotionally dangerous to decent people.

And by empathy here, I don’t mean merely the ability to feel for the family of this murdered child. I’m guessing most all can manage that much. Rather, I refer to the kind of empathy too rarely attainable, by whites in particular, in the case of black folks who insist, based on their entire life experience and the insight gained from that experience, that their rights to life and liberty are too often subject to the capricious whims of those with less melanin than they, and for reasons owing explicitly to the color of their skin.

Empathy — real empathy, not the situational and utterly phony kind that most any of us can muster when social convention calls for it — requires that one be able to place oneself in the shoes of another, and to consider the world as they must consider it. It requires that we be able to suspend our own culturally-ingrained disbelief long enough to explore the possibility that perhaps the world doesn’t work as we would have it, but rather as others have long insisted it did.

Empathy, which is always among the first casualties of racist thinking, mandates our acceptance of the possibility that maybe it isn’t those long targeted by oppression who are exaggerating the problem or making the proverbial mountain out of a molehill, but rather we who have underestimated the gravity of racial domination and subordination in this country, and reduced what are, in fact, Everest-sized peaks to ankle-high summits, and for our own purposes, rather than in the service of truth.

And please, let us have no more ignoble and dissembling rationalizations for Trayvon Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s killing of him. If you are one, like those firmly ensconced in the pathetic Sanford, Florida police department, trying against all logic and human feeling to square this pernicious circle, just stop it. That there had been a half-dozen or so break-ins in Zimmerman’s community, ostensibly orchestrated by black males matters not a whit. Likewise, that there was a string of robberies in my New Orleans neighborhood during my senior year of college, which were the handiwork of white men, would not have justified my being stopped by police every time I returned home from a late afternoon class, to say nothing of being accosted by some community asshole with a Charles Bronson complex. But of course, such an analogy is silly isn’t it? We all know that whites are never subjected to this kind of generalized suspicion, even when we do, indeed, fit the description of one or another bad guy on the loose. We are not all looked at sideways when yet another white male serial killer is at large, or yet another abortion clinic bomber. We don’t face police roadblocks in lily-white communities so as to catch drunk drivers, even though the data is quite clear that whites represent a disproportionate number and percentage of those driving under the influence.

As for Zimmerman’s claims of self-defense, that anyone could believe such a demonstrably transparent lie as this is stunning. Or rather it isn’t. It makes perfect sense in a nation where blackness and danger have long been considered synonymous, such that any black male over the age of perhaps 10 can “reasonably” be assumed a predator whose designs on decent people and their property are so concretized as to warrant virtually any measure invoked to monitor, control and incapacitate them. However much has changed in the U.S. since the 1960s, or for that matter the 1860s, make note of it that at least this much has not: black folks are still, in the eyes of far too many whites, a problem to be addressed, a riddle to be solved. And deprived of the old mechanisms of social control to which we were once so wedded — formal segregation, regular lynchings, forced sterilization, even enslavement — we have opted for the development of new forms: racial profiling, gated communities into which we shall police entry, zoning laws that limit who can live among us, and mass incarceration for non-violent drug offenses, among others.

Under what rational interpretation of self-defense could Zimmerman’s actions qualify? Zimmerman chased Martin down. Zimmerman tackled Martin after Martin demanded to know why Zimmerman was following him. Martin screamed for help. And Zimmerman shot him. Even if Martin fought back, how could such a thing — a quite reasonable response, it should be noted, to being attacked by a total stranger — justify pulling a gun, pulling the trigger and shooting the person who was acting in self-defense against you? To those who accept Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense, let us ask a simple question: would you be so willing to buy that argument if a black person were to chase down a white person in a mostly black neighborhood, and then upon catching him, end his life when the white person resisted being pummeled? You know full well the answer. We all do.

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