I have been unsettled about the George Zimmerman verdict since it was rendered Saturday night. I’ve bounced back and forth between anger and disappointment. It’s not that a “Not Guilty” verdict was a surprise, it’s that the offense that led to Trayvon Martin’s death is, by nature, hard to prosecute. How do you put a person’s subconscious on trial? How do you prosecute an entire mythology that profiles Black boys as probably dangerous and probably up to no good?
Why does it always have to be about race? Because race is a factor. Race has value attached to it, and ignoring that reality is a privilege. I know some of you will say, what privilege? I’m white and I don’t get anything extra because of it. I disagree. What you get is to belong everywhere. You get to avoid the specter of suspicion brought on by your mere presence in a place. You get to just be.
Why is it always about race? Because since the beginning, race has informed the structure of our institutions and our policies. But we pretend to be color-blind. This way, we don’t have to wrestle with the disparities that exist between Blacks and whites at almost every level of existence, nor the subliminal messages we receive from media about criminal pathologies to which Black Americans are genetically predisposed, I guess.
Why does it always have to be about race? Because this color-blind society of ours affords some of us a presumption of innocence and paints others with the presumption of guilt. The 1947 doll test and subsequent studies showed that, subconsciously, brown skin is akin to menace. That’s the offense. You could never get the Zimmerman jury to believe that the menace in this situation was George Zimmerman. He was the creepy one. Did they ever consider that George Zimmerman was suspicious to Trayvon Martin? Why was that such a stretch of the imagination that the Prosecution would need to lead them there? Zimmerman had the arrest record for domestic violence and the loaded gun. Yet, he gets to be suspicious and the unarmed Black kid gets to be the suspect. He is wrong, but the law protects his bad inference. It was lose-lose for Trayvon Martin the moment George Zimmerman encountered him. There is no justice in that, in life or in death.
So what now? I’m not here for marches or rallies or riots because, well, I’m over that. I’m also uninterested in wilfully obtuse conversations about reverse racism or the indignity of ‘cracker’ vs. the indignity of ‘nigger’. I am interested in honest discussions about race. Ask me questions, challenge my assumptions, and allow me to do the same. I’m willing to confront race and acknowledge the differences because my Blackness is not incidental for me. I am not color-blind and I admit that being Black informs my worldview. Similarly, you have to admit that not being Black has informed yours. After watching Juror B37’s interview last night, it is clear that some people have no experience with Black people, save the stereotypes from media or the music they listen to. We have to change that. Start by engaging the conversation. Listen more than you speak. Understand that you are not representative of the whole. Understand, too, that you may not be racist, or you just may not know it.
Lastly, two things: First, O.J. Simpson’s acquittal was an anomaly. I’m not sure if Black people thought he was innocent, or if we were just tickled to see the system work in a Black person’s favor, petty as that seems. In contrast, George Zimmerman’s acquittal was a page right out of a Black history book. No Black people on the jury and no acknowledgement of the role of race as an aggravating factor. Only in the absence of context are these two cases similar. Second, miss me with the ‘don’t be mad about Trayvon if you aren’t mad about Black on Black violence’ meme. Jamelle Bouie’s piece, “The Trayvon Martin Killing and the Myth of Black-on-Black Crime,” notes that the large majority of crimes are committed by people who know each other or live near to one another. This means that if Black on Black crime is a thing, then so is white on white crime, as 86% of white victims are killed by white offenders. Still, even if the proliferation of Black on Black crime wasn’t a myth, don’t police my emotions. Black people can decry street violence and the targeting of our young men at the same time. And even then, again, only in the absence of context are these two incidences the same.
I said all of this to say: If you find yourself asking why certain conflicts “always have to be about race,” recognize that privilege is not having to know the answer to that question.