In the last 24 hours I’ve had two people, one in person and the other via facebook, ask me to explain my perspective on the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman case. As one of them put it, “You are using a rational approach to expressing the same thing I have seen expressed much less rationally but still do not understand.” I imagine there are others of you who are struggling to understand why people—in particular, black-Americans—are at the least disheartened and at the most enraged that George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder as well as the lesser charge of manslaughter.
First let me clarify that I totally understand why George Zimmerman was acquitted. In a case with no other witnesses aside from Zimmerman it is extremely difficult to provide substantial evidence that he was lying, omitting facts or details, or otherwise twisting the truth. The justice system worked the way it is supposed to. Zimmerman was innocent until proven guilty and the prosecution had very little to work with. I am not God nor do I presume to be. The problem I have is: in a way, someone or something else was acquitted right along with Zimmerman. In the minds of myself and many others racial profiling aimed at black men was excused as well.
It was bad enough that black men have had to be concerned about being profiled and pulled over by police or profiled by security in malls and stores. Now the outcome of this trial has now a green light for civilians to profile pursue and detain black men they deem suspicious. We know better than to get mouthy or defend ourselves against police officers and security personnel, even though we’ve done nothing wrong. The outcome of this trial means that in at least 25 states with Stand Your Ground Laws, we can no longer defend ourselves against civilians who would find us—as we say—“under the suspicion of being black” and attempt to question or even detain us. That is where we feel the justice system failed us. That is where we feel the sting of inequality.
There are some making genuine attempts to look at this case objectively who would balk at my assessment because it is rooted in my and others personal experiences of being profiled. Many would suspect us of playing the race card and allowing our paranoia of racism and prejudice to shape our interpretation of these events and experiences. Many don’t understand why we assume that the interaction between Zimmerman and Martin was racially motivated occurrence. However, it’s not just black people who are greatly concerned about what the verdict of this trial means for racial profiling. There is a growing generation of white-Americans who have skin in the game.
Here is a snippet of what a friend, who is white, posted as they tried to sort through their emotions, “Right now I’m teaching all four of my children to fight back, scream for help, bite, kick or whatever they need to do to resist an attacker. But one day, when they’re older, I need to tell two of them to do the opposite, and not defend themselves because it’s too dangerous. Two of my sons are black so I’ve been reading and listening for years to black parents—who’ve lived through profiling by police, store clerks and their neighbors—that I need to teach my twins as they mature NOT to resist or fight even if they’ve done nothing wrong because it’s too dangerous. They must completely submit lest someone decide to issue their own form of justice and end their lives because they look ‘suspicious’.”
Let me reiterate I am not God nor do I presume to be. I don’t know anymore than anyone else whether or not George Zimmerman’s account of what happened that night is completely true or a lie. Nor do I presume to know what the intentions of his heart were that day. In a lot of ways, this isn’t even about Zimmerman and Trayvon anymore. Our society has packaged sold and promoted an image of black men that is overwhelmingly negative and brews fear, mistrust and suspicion. I am sure of this because I have even found myself to be suspicious of black men for no other reason than they were black all in the name of being safe. It’s an awful feeling to realize that you would be suspicious of yourself if you saw you in a different part of town and dressed differently. Popular media such as music, movies, TV shows and especially the ten o’clock news anywhere near an urban area reinforces the message that black men are a menace to society. I had a sinking feeling about the verdict not because I was convinced that Zimmerman was guilty, but because I felt as though the justice system acquitted a culture that says I’m a menace and suspicious. I feel as though the justice system justified the people who stare and keep an eye on me when I’m out with my wife or out in public with students in my youth ministry (just about all of whom are white). And that is why many of us who are fathers, mothers, wives, sons and daughters, neighbors and co-workers of black men are concerned about what this verdict means. It justified the caricature of black men in pop culture that is one of the root causes of the suspicion people have about them.