One Good Thing About the Trayvon Martin Verdict

For the last 26 years I have lived in New York (19 of those years in Brooklyn).  I grew up in North Carolina, and I’m spending the summer here.  Yesterday, after the Trayvon Martin verdict, I was lucky enough to have my friend from Brooklyn, Edgar, over for lunch.  We know each other from my daughters’ school, where his nieces also go. I’m white and he’s black.  I was upset by the verdict and he was devastated.  Another parent at the school wrote a post about this reality with the pretty amazing title, “The Unbearable Ease of Raising A White Son”.  What she doesn’t mention in the post is that her next door neighbor was stopped and frisked several times in a week recently.  One of those times was when he was taking out his trash. The police almost took him in because he didn’t have his wallet on him and they wouldn’t let him go inside to get it.  In that situation I’m sure I would have gone to jail because as Charles Clymer wrote,

White men are allowed to express anger.  We are allowed to express hurt. We are allowed to act on suspicion and concern.  We are allowed to speak freely.  This isn’t to say these feelings aren’t acceptable, but it does mean they are validated by a society in which power is monopolized by those of light skin, whereas concerns expressed by people of color are scrutinized by a ridiculous credit card holder“playing the race card” theory.

Our friend Patrick stayed calm, and didn’t go to jail, probably because he had kids inside and couldn’t afford to risk getting angry.  The truth is, the cops never would have stopped me in my front yard while I was taking out the garbage.  If we know this is true then we simply can’t ignore that there is something wrong there.

When my daughter was in 1st grade Obama was elected President for the first time.  The school is predominantly African American and the mood around the election was electric.  My friend Edgar mentioned that this was a high point for him, and the verdict was a new low.  Frankly, Obama’s response to the verdict was an even lower low.   “I know this case has elicited strong passions.  And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher.  But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.”  Sure, he had to support the legal system.  However, I think he took a pass on taking a hard look at the elephant in the room.  I get that President Obama is the President of all Americans but this was his opportunity to give us a Kennedy style, “Ask not what your country can do for you”.  I would have loved for his statement to have continued, “Their verdict has revealed a fundamental truth about race and class in America.  If we as a Nation working together can put a man on the moon, then we as a nation can also find ways of confronting these truths and ask the hard questions that need to be asked.  We can walk across town into the neighborhoods we do not live in, that we do not feel comfortable in, and look each other in the eye .. perhaps for the first time and say “May peace be with you”.”  Or something like that.

My friend Amy concludes her piece with the following paragraph 

The fact is, we are not all Trayvon’s mom.  Some of us get to glide through life not worrying about such things. But until more white people can empathize with their black neighbors (what? You don’t have black neighbors? Well, that might be part of your problem right there…), until we can sympathize with what it must be like for those parents of blacks boys, until we come to terms with how easy we have it, until we can change laws that make it easy for these tragedies to happen, they will continue to happen.

In Brooklyn, where I live, my neighborhood is a melting pot.  In Chapel Hill, where I am from, the university town means there is a lot of diversity.  However, there are no black families in my neighborhood.  There are still very much white parts of town and black parts of town.  Growing up I experienced very little direct racism as Chapel Hill is a liberal haven that Jesse Helms suggested they build a fence around.  30 years ago, while in high school I took pictures as hundreds of people showed up to protest a 10 person kkk march.  Yet the legacy of institutionalized racism still persists here on a very deep level.  The unconscious realities of our nation’s racial history are as, if not more, powerful than our conscious ones.  The one good thing about the verdict is that it blows the dust off the “post-racial” American fairy tale.  If you want to do something about it take some advice from Kyle Tran Myhre

If you’re someone who has avoided thinking about white privilege—the unearned advantages that white people benefit from because of how institutions are set up and how history has unfolded—now is a great time to unstick your head from the sand.  If Trayvon Martin had been white, he’d still be alive.  What better real-world example of white privilege is there?  Grappling with how privilege plays out in our own lives is a vital first step to being able to understand what racism is.

But it can’t end with “thinking about our privilege.”

We also need to act on those thoughts, to cultivate an awareness that can permeate our lives and relationships.  When people of color share personal stories about racism, our immediate response has to stop being “but I’m not like that.” Just listen. Don’t make someone else’s oppression about you and your feelings.  When people of color are angry, we need to stop worrying about the “tone” of their arguments, or trying to derail the conversation with phrases like “it’s not just about race,” or contribute meaningless abstractions like “let’s start a revolution.” When we see unjust or discriminatory practices or attitudes in our workplaces, schools, families or neighborhoods, we need to step up and challenge them.  We need to take risks.  We need to do better.

But it can’t end with “striving to be a better individual.”

Times like this can feel so hopeless, but it’s important to remember that people are fighting back, and have been fighting back.  Racism doesn’t end when you decide to not be racist.  It ends when people come together to organize, to work to reshape how our society is put together.


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