It has been a little over a week since the Trayvon Martin trial verdict and I’m still grieving. When I first heard the news, I had just awoken in my hotel room in the West Bank, and silently sobbed on the edge of my bed. More than anything, I wanted to cross oceans and time zones and tell my three black brothers that they are beautiful, they are valuable, and that I am proud of who they are. I wanted to hug them without ever letting go.
When I reflect on this past week, I realize that it’s been a vicious cycle of grief, frustration, anger, and numbness. My grief — the collective grief of the black community — is because an innocent black child was stolen from this earth. However, beyond that, our grief is because the outcome of the verdict is proof that black lives are not of value to this country nor its justice system, something we’ve known to be true for many, many years now.
I have a confession to make: George Zimmerman isn’t the person that I fear the most. Mr. Zimmerman is a coward of a human being and for the rest of his life he will have to look at himself in the mirror and live with not only his verdict, but the fact that he let his hatred speak for him. The people that I fear the most aren’t people like Mr. Zimmerman; it is white liberals.
I know a lot of white liberals. They are my colleagues and some of my dearest friends. Most of them are well-meaning people who want to get it. So, they do what ivory tower academia has taught them to do; they read. They fall in love with brilliant black writers and become enamored with the words and truths that lay hidden in the pages of their books. I
Inspired by this new-found knowledge, some of them move to predominantly black neighborhoods as a way of proving that they are, well, you know, not scared of black people. They invite folks over to their homes they never think to invite their black neighbors. Actually, they don’t even know their neighbors’ names. They love spending time with people of color, so much so, that they seek out every opportunity that they can to “help” them. They aspire to one day become educators, faith leaders, social workers, human rights activists, and non-profit CEOs because they genuinely care about making the world a more justice place for all people. But when the story of man who gets away with murdering a black child makes national news, many of them chose to be silent.
In my experience this past week, the haunting silence came from people that I expected more from: white folks who are frequently outspoken about injustice in both their private and public life, and especially those who were exceptionally vocal during DOMA’s repeal. Most of the responses that I witnessed and heard regarding the verdict came only when the silence was questioned or named as white privilege and supremacy. Very, very rarely were the responses remorseful–or even thoughtful. They came in the form of verbal attacks and explicit defensiveness, instead of compassion, personal assessment, and seeking to understand the overarching narrative of anti-blackness in this country. Ultimately, avoiding the issue all together took greater precedent over accountability.
On a national scale, responses from well-known, predominantly white liberal and progressive organizations were minimal at best. While the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) signed onto a letter led by the National Black Justice Coalition and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force calling for justice for Trayvon Martin, they did not release any formal press release or statement regarding the verdict. The organization People for the American Way and Center for American Progress both neglected to release any statement as well [Editor’s correction: People For the American Way President Michael Keegan did release an op-ed on Monday, July 15th, responding to the Zimmerman verdict. Read it here]. However, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) did manage to speak and released a statement on July 15th opening with “We have great faith in America’s jury system and do not question the verdict in the Zimmerman case.” It is no surprise that according to the The Washington Post/ABC News poll, nearly 1 in 3 white Democrats approve of the Zimmerman verdict.
The truth is many white liberals in this country have come to believe a lie. A lie that says just because they are “liberal” or can quote W.E.B. DuBois or have one friend who’s black it means they are no longer racist, and a lie that says that selective and partial justice is an option. Racism–either by silence or with words–is always evil. Far too many white liberals are racist by silence. It’s impossible to be committed to working towards the self-determination and liberation of black people if one is silent in the face of injustice. Silence isn’t passive; it’s an active choice. It is a choice that is deadly and that speaks volumes. Silence is what kills black boys that look like Trayvon Martin.
It’s vital that we as black people be our own example in the struggle for our own liberation. We cannot afford to wait for white people to accept an invitation to join us in our struggle and it’s true that some of us have gotten distracted. However, the onus isn’t on black people to do all of the talking. White liberals must wake up and start speaking. They must choose to be better. To be clear, as a black woman, I know my voice and my truth. The last thing I “need” is for my white counterparts to speak for me. What I hope for is for them to accept an invitation to be a part of something resilient, beautiful and brave. To choose to stand with black people and never for black people. To choose to love us fiercely (which is impossible if white liberals socially distance themselves from having intimate and trusting relationships with black people).
If white liberals choose to not accept the invitation, then they must know that their silence will speak for them. To pass up on this invitation, to live cowardly, is to say something shameful about the very things they claim to be compelled by. It is to say that whiteness and white privilege should be preserved and protected at all costs, even at the cost of another person’s humanity.