On Zimmerman And American Racism
As I write this, an hour ago, George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin was acquitted of all charges. I don’t believe that the legal system is a justice system, per se. Law and due process are about argument, not righteousness. People who are accused must be proven to be guilty beyond reasonable doubt or they are free men and women. Everybody gets their day in court and the best arguments win; sometimes at the expense of justice. I must admit that when I ponder this, I become very relieved at my decision not to pursue law school. Because I, personally, would have gone to law school with the purpose of trying to make the world a more just place. I am sure many do. But events such as this serve as a reminder that we have a legal system, but not necessarily a justice system; the semantics matter.
I have tried my best to not see this case through the eyes of race. It has been difficult. Still, being an African I am not compounded with the racial baggage that most Americans carry. But I am not blind to the racial injustices that exist in this country. As a Black female, I am subjected to it and I have experienced it both directly and indirectly. The truth is we cannot talk about this case without talking about race because it is race that led up to the tragic events of the shooting and death of Trayvon Martin. This was a boy unarmed, who was targeted and profiled because of the checkboxes of his American profile as Black and male. Against the counsel of the police themselves, Zimmerman chose to pursue this boy; theoretically, as a matter of self-defense.
It goes against human survival instincts and common sense to pursue somebody who you think is dangerous. That is simply something worth considering as we deconstruct the facts of the case and trial. If somebody were to be dangerous and I was much safer by staying put where I am, rather than in pursuit of the person as a means of self-defense; instinctually as a human, I would stay put. And I believe that most of us would. But Zimmerman went in pursuit against someone he believed to be dangerous, against obviously better judgment and counsel. How then can it be self-defense? I am dumbfounded. This is not one of those high-profile cases in this country where people are making judgments, testifying to crimes they did not witness. I have always been very cautious in making any commentary on the judgment of high-profiles cases out of the mere reasoning that I simply wasn’t there. But the facts of this case and particularly the police recordings were available for all of us to hear and make rational deductions. And we heard a man who was advised to stay put but refused to do so.
I do believe that common sense is actually quite uncommon. But I don’t believe that human instincts, especially in the preservation of life, vary; not even in a way that is culturally-specific. Why didn’t Zimmerman stay put as he had been told? How can his instincts have told him that pursuit, upon perceiving a potentially dangerous person was a rational course of action? But at the same time, I know that because of my own beliefs, I do not know the heart of any man or woman. So Zimmerman’s intentions and his heart and his conscience are not for me to judge. Yet my heart is filled with grief and with the feeling of injustice having been done to a seventeen year-old boy.
Why does this matter? It matters because of the race/ethnicity and the sex of who the victim was. Trayvon Martin was Black and male and ultimately that combination is the most dangerous mixture of a person in the United States. And it is for this reason that he was even perceived as dangerous in the first place. But mostly it is the difference that made a difference in this case and trial. Let me be candid: You sitting here, reading this: do you believe that if Zimmerman had seen a White female of the same age, wearing the same outfit, imitating the same actions as Martin; do you think she would have been perceived as dangerous? Do you think that this case would have even gone to trial? Do you think that if it had, it would have been an acquittal? And why does it seem that most of the people that seem to care about the boy who lost his life, are mostly people who look like him?
I cannot rationalize that race doesn’t play a role in this case. And I say this as someone who tries to be fair. I say this as someone who has grown up in a family that has ingrained in me that people are not the sum-total of their race or gender or status. But rather, people are their words and actions. And ultimately what I do know is whatever Zimmerman’s intentions were that day, there is a young boy buried in the ground whose life was taken too early. And at the very least, the partial-mistake if not the only mistake he made, was being born in a country that views that young boy – Black and male – as dangerous.
Why do I care? I care because I live in this country, and even as a foreigner I love this country; and this puts me to shame that I do. I care because I am a young Black African female and while I cannot claim to fully understand the prejudices and disadvantages of being Black American, I empathize with the plight of a people who continue to be discriminated against, century after century. I care because I have three brothers who are Black and male and given those identities, can be mistaken for being something they are not, were they all to live here. I care because I have friends who fit that script. I care because universally, Black bodies around the world are inflicted a different set of morality based on their social construction. I care because I am a person and another person was taken too early, tragically; and there is no authentic accountability. I care because this happens or things like this happen every single day.
I have never believed that the way legal systems work really rehabilitates and seeks to change people. I believe that these are mostly systems of vengeance, of retribution; of seeking an eye for an eye. So I don’t seek an eye for an eye and I don’t wish ill on Zimmerman because of who I am and what I believe. But I do know that there seems to be no closure for the family and friends of that young seventeen year-old boy. I do know that cases such as these make the historical injustices that disadvantaged groups face, feel evermore present. I do know that this cuts right through a community of people who believe that one of their own have once again faced the brunt of a racist society, a fact that is often taken for granted. I do know that of Zimmerman and American racism, it makes a people who were once physically in chains still have to stop and question, “Are we really free at last?”
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I wish to God I’d had a list like this when I was 23.
Answer phones better than anyone else has answered phones before. Relay messages so brilliant, they bring people to tears. Turn the coffee run into the choreography of Swan Lake. Become best friends with every intern and every underling and every taxi driver you encounter.
I remember taking the pen and notebook from that woman outside the courtroom, flipping to a clean page in the book, and writing, JESSICA IS SAD in big, bold, uncoordinated letters. “My sister is going to be a good writer someday! Look at how nice her lines are!”
To begin, I got totally screwed over in the dental genes department. I was born with a pretty severe overbite and a mouth that was too small.