I was out with friends on Saturday night when the verdict in the case against George Zimmerman was announced. I couldn’t believe it, but of course I could believe it as well. I won’t pretend to know the ins and outs of the case, and having served on a jury of a criminal trial myself, I know that you must set aside your personal feelings about the case and follow the law based on the evidence presented in the court room. I do not blame the jury. I blame the system. And by “the system,” I mean every piece of the puzzle from birth to adulthood that puts African-American males in such a dangerous situation just to walk down the street with some candy and an iced tea.
Discussing race, especially when you are a white male, can be a minefield. Certainly, I have known the privilege that comes with being a white male in America. Granted, I have faced my own struggles with discrimination and have been the victim of violence by a skinhead as a teenager. That is a story for another post, but this is the only concrete bridge I can really find to try to understand the threat of violence that a young, black male faces. Working with at-risk youth over the past year, I have developed more of an understanding of this issue, but I am still always wanting to listen and understand better.
Is this about an unarmed teen being shot with a gun and the shooter getting away with it because he was somehow deemed to be defending himself? Sure. Is this about what constitutes enough of a threat to your person that you can actually KILL a fellow human being? Of course. Is this about the fact that institutionalized racism and the glorification of street violence causes many people to see a young, black male and think he is going to rob or hurt them? Absolutely.
It is hard to stop this kind of thinking. It is conditioned in many of us. I certainly feel that I am not a discriminatory person by nature, but I won’t pretend I have never been walking on a dark sidewalk at night, saw a tall, African-American male and felt a sense of fear come across me. I might have zipped up my satchel or crossed to the other side of the street to “be safer.” I could say this is a solely biological response to being 5’7″ tall and not good at fighting and defending myself. But I can’t hide behind that alone. I will say I am even more scared when I see a white “redneck” coming toward me in the dark. I am far more afraid of that kind of violence since I don’t fit what is considered “masculine enough” to many men, but that doesn’t excuse anything either. There are many, many ways that our society and media (all kinds) have conditioned us to think young, black males are in gangs, up to no good, might have a gun; the list goes on and on.
In my experiences over the last year being a music teacher in the poorer neighborhoods of Grand Rapids, I have established open and trusting relationships with young people from many walks of life. I have seen first hand that many African-American young adults feel pressure to be “street.” They feel they have no choice but to present a tough exterior. They need this to feel safe. “Weak people get jumped.” Underneath it all, though, I have known very few if any teens that are actually what would be called “thugs.” Granted, at my job we do not put up with anything like that in the first place. And in my line of work the point is to work with youth so they become responsible, contributing members of society. But you can’t hide from their realities. They won’t trust you if you act like their lives are just like anyone else’s lives. That applies to all the at-risk kids I teach. They are often aware of their situations and will tell me that they will never be anything. They feel written off before they’ve even begun. Some of these kids are 8 or 9 years old. It breaks my heart.
So where do we point the fingers here? At everyone? Or do we stop pointing fingers and try to effect change where we can? Bad things are always going to happen, and young, black males will be extremely at-risk for the foreseeable future. Little by little, though, people make a difference. I feel the biggest critics of Trayvon Martin don’t seem to see him as a human being with thoughts, feelings, family or love. They just write him off as “one of them.” There are far too many “kinds of people” in our world that are “one of those.” I know the feeling all too well. It dehumanizes groups of people. I didn’t know Trayvon Martin and I can’t imagine what his life was like or who he was, but I can imagine the phone ringing and finding out that one of the teens we work with has been killed by someone who thought he was a threat. When I put it in that perspective, I think of how furious and incredulous I would be in that situation.
On the other hand I can’t make George Zimmerman “one of them” either. What happened in his life that he has such a deep distrust of African-Americans? There are plenty of people who possess that feeling. It comes from many places. At the end of the day, in my view, a man made a mistake and now a young adult is dead. Even if he was being assaulted, as some claim, does that warrant a fatality? Not to me. Where this fits in with the law and Stand Your Ground laws is a complicated issue. The law might be colorblind in theory but it is not in practice. The statistics prove it.
To me, the biggest problem youth face is the cyclical nature of poor communities. The chances of getting out of poverty are not good. Kids grow up with “not enough” anything. Not enough money. Not enough food. Not enough quality education. Not enough discipline. Not enough mercy. Not enough supervision. Not enough caring adults. Maybe there’s a single parent with many kids. Maybe there are two parents with two jobs each, trying to make ends meet. There are many reasons kids don’t have “enough” and they are not ALL because of dead-beat parents. Escaping poverty is nearly impossible in our culture as it stands.
So these children become adults and they have only known life to be what it is and the cycle begins again. Not to mention gang violence. I hear stories all the time from kids. They feel their time is coming where they will have to join a gang or be unsafe. We combat that the best we can but it is a real and legitimate concern. There are systems in place and no law seems to be able to change it or help it. States with Stand Your Ground laws do not see less violent crime. They see more.
At the end of the day we have to acknowledge that race still matters in America. We are not in the “post-racial” period that we read about so often. We can try to have an open dialogue about what makes us different and what makes us the same. We should have that conversation. I have it all the time. Kids are aware of what makes their cultures unique and they are quick to discuss it when the door opens to have that conversation. Some will openly say I can’t understand them, generally the teens. Perhaps, but I want to listen and learn more. I want to work together, not apart. I want to play my part in exploring diversity by working with and knowing all kinds of people. I don’t want to save anyone. I just want to keep the dialogue going without fear of stepping on toes. I have found that the more you have an open conversation with people you can trust, the less you have to worry. You might say the wrong thing, or say something the wrong way, but when you have the mutual trust to HEAR the response as to why you might be off base or using the wrong wording, you learn something.
Talking to one another; telling our stories of how we view the world and our cultures is how diversity becomes inclusive instead of existing on our own sides of the fence while the ground beneath us is the same. The more we come together, really hear and respect each other, the less senseless tragedies we will see. I hope so anyway, and I’d rather hope than give up.