Feedback from Chuck on Feedback from Jefe on Zimmerman, Martin, and America

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power” – Abraham Lincoln

More commentary came in regarding the George Zimmerman trial, this time from Chuck, a friend from high school who is also black. We didn’t necessarily run with the same crowd (Chuck was older) but we certainly played pickup basketball together. Check your stereotypes at the door though – I was the better baller (sorry Chuck). Of course, now I have a bad disc and Chuck has a bum knee, so our basketball skills are various shades of bad.

Comment from Chuck (followed by my comments):

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“I will agree with your friend Jefe in his views. I will take it a step deeper. God’s willing and the creek doesn’t rise, I will be a grandfather in November. In the raising of my grandson, it is my job, like it was my dad and granddad with me and so on, to help equip him to not only be the best God fearing man that he can be but to survive as a man of color in this country. No matter what anyone says, the rules of survival for a man of color have an extra chapter or two. This is the nature of the beast and knowing how to act will improve your chances of survival. Which brings me to this point….Trayvon’s family was living in a nice neighborhood in Sanford. This family is living the middle America life doing the best that they can, doing it right. This family is punished because 1 man figured that this kid did not belong here. That could have easily been one of my girls, walking home from the store. As parents, we want to give our kids a good and safe childhood. But because some jabroni doesn’t think I belong, he takes it upon himself to kill my child. This thought chills me to the bone.

The one thing that is clear. I was Trayvon, I am Trayvon and I always will be Trayvon. It is painful for any child to die, especially in a senseless way. But until people are truly perceived to be equal, we have what we have….”

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I recall reading a similar turn of phrase in Chuck’s blog on the subject a year ago. “I was Trayvon, I am Trayvon …” I remember this because he added something [correct me here Chuck] about being “high yellow Trayvon from South Newton” – the words stuck in my head. South Newton was “the other side of the tracks” in our old town. (And yes, Chuck is light skinned.)

There’s an identification with Trayvon that Jefe and Chuck are able to express here. They can point to being profiled themselves at various times. Not so for me. Tall, thin, preppy white kids from the golf course community rarely get profiled.

Stay Safe …

There is something pragmatically beautiful about Chuck’s comments on teaching his grandson to survive as a man of color in this country. We can hem and haw about how a black kid should be able to walk down the street without getting harassed, and he should, but at the end of the day it’s important to stay safe. This isn’t Mobile or Montgomery in the late 50s, early 60s. There are simple things to do that keep a person safer, and there’s no need to make a “dangerous” stand … while we all wait for things to get right.

I remember walking through Newton in high school with Robert Thompson, a teammate from the Newton Conover High School basketball team. (Robert died in a car crash maybe 10-15 years ago. He was a good guy, a good friend. R.I.P. Rob.) We passed a pool hall and Rob told me that his mother had made it clear he was never to go in. It was a hang out for bikers and skinheads, and not safe for a black kid from South Newton. It was a bit odd for me to hear that – I wasn’t afraid of going anywhere … except South Newton.

It was good parenting. Teach the kids to be safe. Nobody wants to be where Trayvon’s parents are. I’ve buried a child, my oldest boy Adam (8 years ago), his issues were medical, not gun violence, but I can tell you it’s no good.

Those Stereotypes Came from Somewhere …

I was conversing with Jefe some more on the Martin situation and he and I agree, if Trayvon Martin were white he would not have been killed. That doesn’t mean quite the same thing as he was killed because he was black. Simply that if he had been a white kid in a polo shirt and sport sandals (?) Zimmerman probably wouldn’t have accosted him. If there was no confrontation, then surely Martin would not have been killed. (Question: what if Martin had been wearing a polo shirt and sport sandals – would Zimmerman have still accosted him? Something to think about.)

We all have these stereotypes, these prejudices. Here I mean prejudice in the strict definition – a pre-judgment of a scenario or individual without any immediately relevant information, a stereotype. This is something wildly different than racism, a belief in relative, innate superiority of one race.

Martin certainly had stereotypes, prejudices to deal with  himself. He knew well that if he was being followed by somebody in a car as he walked it might be trouble. He knew he may well get harassed. This without any direct knowledge of the persons operating the neighborhood watch. It’s a prejudice. It’s not wrong, history would have taught him that. It’s possible his parents would have taught him the same (just as Rob Thompson’s parents taught him not to go to certain places).

History has taught young black men that they will get a different type of treatment from the legal system than white kids with wealthy parents who commit the same crimes. You don’t have to be indoctrinated to know this, you just have to pay attention. So, if a black kid goes in front of a judge and expects to get treated more harshly, without knowing anything about the judges predisposition, he is acting on prejudice, stereotype. He’s not wrong for doing so, but he may well be proven wrong by the judge.

There’s a feedback cycle in here. If you believe the system is against you, you are less likely to stay within the bounds of the system.

Zimmerman surely has prejudices too, and not just racial. The prosecution has tried to paint Zimmerman as an over-zealous neighborhood watch captain who had made numerous calls to the police about crimes in the neighborhood. I’ve even heard news commentators talk about hearing the “frustration” in Zimmerman’s voice as he called about Trayvon Martin. Frustration. But where did that frustration come from? It came from crimes committed in his community that were not stopped by the police, even though he had done the leg work for them and put extra eyes in place. (Trayvon Martin was innocent of this, of course, but these prejudices come from somewhere.)

I have a friend at work who suffered a home invasion robbery a year ago. Two men forced their way into his house and held he and his wife at gunpoint for over an hour, robbing them and threatening them. (Yes, the two men were black, my friend and his wife are white – but this is not the point. The guys were actually there to rob his white neighbor, who is a dealer, and got the wrong house.) The criminals eventually left and the police were called in. After the interviews one of the junior officers on the scene told my buddy that this was going to be their number one priority. My friend looked to one of the older officers and asked “are you  going to catch these guys?” …. “Nope” is all that came back.

No, we’re not going to catch the guys who invaded your home and stole from you (and stole much more than just stuff at that). In fact, the system’s response? They fast-tracked him for a concealed carry permit. That’s right, we’ll get you cleared to carry a gun so you can deal with this yourself if it ever comes up again. Thanks guys. What am I paying taxes for?

At this point the police will protest that they have nowhere near the necessary resources to do that level of police work. I suspect they’re right, perhaps if the government weren’t wasting all that money on … let me stop there before I get off topic. (Sidebar: did the IRS really issue over $46,000,000 in refunds to nearly 24,000 illegal aliens … all living at the same address? Good thing we spent all that time targeting dangerous Tea Party groups instead of, I don’t know, running checks on how much was going back to how many people at one address.)

The point is that Zimmerman may well have had frustration in his voice – because A LOT OF PEOPLE have frustration in their voice over high crime rates. A lot of people are sick and tired of a system that doesn’t perform the most basic function of defending individual rights (life, liberty, and property) but spends like crazy on give-aways to various constituencies (how much did we give Goldman Sachs?).

Feedback cycle … if the system isn’t perceived as working, folks will work outside the system.

So Zimmerman has a prejudice. “When I call the police, they won’t come and do something about it.” (He’s not the only one with that prejudice by the way … sing it with me “911 is a joke”) These came from experience. They weren’t “taught in the home” as the constant refrain goes.

He also had a prejudice that a black kid was more likely a criminal than a white kid. This didn’t come from nowhere guys. I’ve never been robbed but I know a lot of people who have been held up at gunpoint (mostly in college). Funny thing, I can’t point you to maybe 10 friends (acquaintances) that have been robbed at gunpoint … only one by a white kid. Maybe your experiences (or those of friends/acquaintances) are different. My point is these stereotypes didn’t come from nowhere. Zimmerman wasn’t taught at a KKK meeting that blacks are inferior (he’s half Hispanic, I’m sure he wouldn’t be welcomed). He saw the world around him and made inferences. We all do it.

So Trayvon would likely not have been killed if he were white. I agree with Jefe (and I assume Chuck would say the same). He would also likely not have been killed if Sanford police had shut down criminal activity and obviated the need for neighborhood watches (Zimmerman never would have been out there playing the part of “jabroni with a gun”). This isn’t the same as intent of course. I don’t believe Zimmerman killed Trayvon because he was black, anymore than he killed him to make a point to the police and send a message to criminals.

Please don’t confuse that point with a defense of Zimmerman. I suspect he is “guilty” of at least having initiated the confrontation (and gotten physical) before claiming a right self-defense. This logically must violate the “stand your ground” rule – but logical and legal aren’t the same thing. (I also suspect there won’t be sufficient evidence for second degree murder.)

Perceived as Equals …

Chuck makes an excellent point there at the very end about the need to be “perceived as equals” – in management terms we’d call that “what ‘good’ looks like”. That is, when we get to “the right place” we will have, among other things, a perception of equality amongst the people. I don’t mean here an elimination of racism, which will likely persist as a belief system until heaven and earth pass away but which is also adhered to by a relatively small number. I mean an elimination of prejudice, of stereotype, of a presumption based on race, creed, color.

But how do we get there? Any notion that folks who have developed stereotypes based on their observance of the world over the course of many years can simply turn them off is absurd. Those prejudices didn’t come out of thin air, and they didn’t appear in a moment – they won’t disappear into thin air or in a moment either.

I mean that in both directions of course. The black Americans who have learned through experience that the system won’t give them a fair shake are highly unlikely to just up and “hit the reset button” and walk into tomorrow thinking everything is alright. You run into enough George Zimmermans (Zimmermen?) and you’ll see the world with a more cynical eye.

How Do We Get There?

I have to tell you, I’m not sure. The answers aren’t simple and both sides of the argument (or perhaps “all sides” of the issue, there may be more than two) seem to lead with “the other side needs to change first.” That never works. Let me say it again – that never works.

I will say that I think integration is key. I don’t mean busing for school systems. I simply mean that when folks live and work together they begin to realize they’re not all that different. I went to high school with many black kids, I went to church with them, I had black roommates for years. I’d say on the whole this has been quite beneficial for me.

(Sidebar: I recall quite often hearing from the young black kids at church in college that I wasn’t “like” all the other white people. You know the drill – “you’re not like the rest of them.” I tried hard to convince them that indeed I am quite like other white people. I know a lot of white people, it turns out, and I’m hardly an outlier.)

I also think generations will bear this out. The kids in high school today view race differently than we did in 1990, and we were quite different from our parents in 1960. Once things get “pointed in the right direction” it still takes generations to overcome inertia. So bring on the generations.

Naturally I also think the Church has a major role to play. It is the place where we are connected beyond race. I’ve felt nervous driving through South Newton before, but I’ve never felt nervous walking into a black church. Maybe nervous that I’d stand out like a sore thumb, but never nervous for my safety. Of course when we truly get “there” then I suspect there won’t be “black” churches or “white” churches. (For the record, my current church is quite integrated. Is it 50-50? Nope, but Columbia MD isn’t 50-50 either. Our demographics pretty well represent the demographics of the city when you consider white, black, latino, asian, and all the rest.)

The Trial Goes on, And I Still Don’t Think It Ends Well …

It’s sometimes difficult  to piece together just how a trial is going, and commentaries are often wrong, but the amount of evidence the prosecution will be able to present here seems paltry. (And I think Zimmerman is probably guilty.) The “star witness” took the stand yesterday and is apparently a pot-head who has changed stories several times (and gone back to try to scrub her twitter feed). Does this mean her witness isn’t true? No – it means that she probably doesn’t help the prosecution all that much. Other witnesses have come and gone and their testimony has always been damning at the start and then fallen completely to pieces on cross examination. Some have had to change stories right there on the stand. Embarrassing. This case is hardly a slam dunk to begin with, but if the prosecution can’t do better than Marcia Clark and Chris Darden then it will end with acquittal.

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