*3/23 editorial note: George Zimmerman’s father is white and his mother is Latina. Some readers are all bent out of joint about me referring to him as a white. His hispanic roots do nothing to alter the point of my thesis, and it could be reasonably argued that Zimmerman enjoys “white privilege.” With that stated, I have left the article as I originally posted it.
There is a reason why African Americans are rallying around the senseless death of an unarmed boy. It is not only because it was senseless; senseless deaths happen often. It is because there are split seconds in America’s aging history that freeze time and expose horrifying realities underneath the skin of an outwardly racially enlightened country.
Those momentous split seconds are the blink of an eye judgment calls individuals (whether neighborhood protectors, police, or private citizens) make when they decide to use force against a suspect or a presumed threat. In the case of Trayvon Martin, the young man was not even a bona fide suspect, but in mere seconds his innocent life was jettisoned from Skittles to bullets by the trigger-happy will of a prejudiced white man. From the bright colors of hope and life to the cold, steely reality of another man’s judgment.
White people should care. As a white pastor raised in Africa and France and spending the first ten years of my adult ministry in Europe before coming to a racially divided city in Illinois, I have come to marvel at the appalling lack of empathy whites have for black feelings. Unless it is politically expedient, there will be little mention of the story until blacks themselves demand attention. Furthermore, it should be vexing to righteous souls that professing Christians cannot disentangle themselves from political and cultural biases and practice the Christian grace of weeping with those who weep. White Christians cannot understand that they should do more than weep with the relatives of the slain teen, but they should weep with the black community. They wish instead to regard every white on black crime as a normal crime, but a mere accident of color. Therefore, they do not understand the community that clusters around Trayvon. They pity a death, but they do not sympathize with Trayvon’s community.
But white Christians should not merely pity the unfortunate loss of life, they should vocally sympathize with the anxiety of the black man in this country by recognizing that though they cannot unwhite themselves, they can at least acknowledge two basic privileges that empower white young men.
1. Whites enjoy racial solidarity without even working for the privilege. Whites are genuinely intrigued by the way blacks rally around an unknown black teen and stir up national emotions on black-related issues. While blacks work hard for racial solidarity, whites are often insulted by that effort and scorn it as sour grapes; black young people unwilling to fully enjoy the rewards of civil rights purchased by their fathers just because they had to deal with some mean whites. But what whites do not realize is that they actually have racial solidarity already by the sheer force of majority. Thus, a white boy in a hoodie with Skittles in his pocket is not automatically deemed suspicious.
2. Secondly, an empowering asset that white young men enjoy is the benefit of the doubt. Women do not clutch their purses when they walk by. And if they inexplicably kill a boy one hundred pounds lighter and armed with iced tea, they get the benefit of the doubt. The benefit of the doubt is incredibly empowering and to be stripped of it is to be oppressed. Many young black men are still oppressed.
It is too easy and not honest for whites to dismiss the charges of racial profiling from Trayvon’s family as political opportunism by disgruntled blacks. While most whites are also grieved by the death of Trayvon Martin and would not be at all unhappy if his killer were incarcerated for life as soon as it can be proven that he is guilty, they still cannot sympathize with the community rage among blacks. They are almost condescending in the way they remind the grieving black community about “due process”. The assumption, of course, is that “due process” will not fail to deliver justice (an assumption not readily shared by many blacks), so with clinical and dispassionate reservation they calmly call for a thorough investigation and fail to see how biases ingrained in their psyche have bled them of sympathy.
It is unfair to the white community to think that they want a murderer to go free. And most thoughtful blacks are not prepared to accuse whites of deliberately preferring the murderer to the innocent. However, they do suspect whites of letting the murderer go free at the expense of justice because they are unable to be just. I share this suspicion. Whites are often unable to react justly in the blink of an eye because of their latent prejudices. And this is what should scandalize all of us.
Fifty thousand ardent fans watch the baseball umpire call a man out. Thirty thousand fans of that player’s team would swear on the Bible that their player was safe. The other twenty thousand would be just as unwaveringly confident that the umpire got it right. All fifty thousand fans would be equally sincere. And certain. Their entire conception of the call is shaped by their emotions.
When a black kid wearing a hoodie gets shot a judgment call is made on the scene by the man with the gun and the badges that inspect the death scene later. Usually those calls are made in the blink of an eye, snap decisions that are often irreversible. Should we give a toxicology test to the shooter? Should we impound the car for further investigation? Should we be suspicious of the shooter? Etc. Tragically, the perspective of the scene is too often determined by the bias of emotion and white policemen too often with all sincerity cannot presume that a black boy did not have it coming one way or another. Hard questions are not asked. Careful inspection is not done. Emotions ruled the split second decisions.
Christians are sad that a boy died, but this is not enough and, in my opinion, it fails to grasp the real burden that our black brothers and sisters live with. We should recognize the burden of living in a society where their skin color can drastically influence the uncontrolled impulses of adrenaline-powered emotion in hearts that harbor racism toward them.
Some have tried to show the suspiciousness of the shooting by removing the issue of skin color from the scenario in order to make the case that common sense is on the side of Trayvon’s parents. They say that if we imagined all the people were gray that Trayvon’s death would be highly suspect. I agree with the conclusion, but the bare fact remains (and this is what all black people know): a black boy was killed by a white man (or white latino).
This particular killing is so disturbing because, as I have said, it is in the heat of the moment when real feelings and biases are evident. Tolerance, magnanimity, fairness, equanimity, humility, and respect can all be calculated, construed, mimicked, planned, and pre-meditated. And this is certainly progress for the black community because there was a time when even these basic qualities were not expected from the white majority toward the black minority. But it is in the heat of the moment when the adrenalin is rushing, in snap decisions, that the undiluted feelings of a man are exposed.
Blink of the eye judgment calls reveal the secrets of the heart. Christians of all ethnicities must understand this reality. White Christians in America — specifically — should be overtly sympathetic to the uneasiness among blacks because of this reality. It is true that there is no way to prove that Zimmerman would not have shot and killed a white boy in those same circumstances. But what can be proved is that he (white) shot and killed a black boy. And the boy was shot down in circumstances that would normally seem obvious to any clearheaded and dispassionate person as deeply suspicious.
I have begun to realize that my knee-jerk reaction is not the same as many of my white friends: I instinctively think something is afoul when I hear of these killings. I could be wrong, yes, and due process may prove that to be so, but what is clear is that most whites in the USA don’t instinctively think murder and most blacks do. What also seems readily apparent to all who read the reports is that the local police shared the snap assessments of most whites, seemingly dismissing the knee-jerk and natural reaction of a black father that his son had been unjustly gunned down. Instead the knee-jerk reaction of the police was to dignify the knee-jerk reaction of the killer.
Blink of the eye judgments reveal biases. But life is far too complex for blink of the eye assessments, particularly if the judge has his finger on a trigger. As a father of a feisty little five-year-old (who just so happens to be bi-racial) I have seen how previous experiences with my son have prejudiced teachers and adults in their snap judgments of any situation that he is involved in. Their bias gives them a “certainty” about their hasty conclusion and too many times my boy has been the victim of unjust decisions. Thankfully, the sentencing was merely a snide remark, criticism of my parenting, or a verbal scolding. In Trayvon’s case it was a bullet to the chest.
Whites who understand the nature of man need to step up and say this was a racial profiling and the boy would probably still be alive if he were white.
This is not the assumption of race-baiting black politicians. And it is a misunderstanding of “innocent until proven guilty” that is often proffered as justification for the unsympathetic feelings toward the black community. We’re not even talking about guilt yet. We’re talking about legitimate suspicion. One can be a legitimate suspect, but not guilty until proven guilty. If Zimmerman were black I think he’d be a suspect. All those who clamor for “due process” should understand that due process for many killings often begins with legitimate suspects when there is even less evidence of foul play!
This is an educated assumption made by people who understand people. Christians need to demand a thorough investigation of all the officers involved and the shooter needs to be treated as a murder suspect. It is scandalous to my mind that he has not been arrested and we all know that if he were black he’d be behind bars right now. We have a long history of not giving the benefit of the doubt to black men and instinctively not aggressively pursuing justice if the victim is black. I have several black friends who have been stopped, arrested, and/or interrogated as if they were liars when there was no other clear-headed reason for stopping them versus the white guys in the vicinity. These good men, Christians all of them, know that they’d be in a holding cell right now if Trayvon had been white and they had been the self-appointed neighborhood watchman.
The plight of the black man is definitely getting better in this country. We have a black Attorney General. We have a black president. But the reality stands that blacks are still a minority and black men know that their whole destiny could be determined by the snap, adrenalin-fueled decision of a white man and protected by the knee-jerk analyses of men who have never had their sinful racism rooted from the deep of their hearts. Civil liberties do not change instincts. And black men know (as we all do) that when instincts take over, the real person steps forward.
It’s instinctual to argue back if a guy gets out of his car and talks tough to you, demanding to know why you are in the neighborhood. But Trayvon did not get the right to yield to his instincts and live to explain himself. A mere seventeen-year-old, he didn’t realize that the instincts of the white man confronting him were also taking over. And his instincts are licensed to kill. In the name of self-defense. Even though from all the data that we can gather he initiated the contact with the teen despite being specifically told not to. Even though he stepped out of the safety of his car. Even though he was bigger. Even though he was armed. Even though the boy apparently was on a cell phone just minutes before talking to a girl friend. Even though….. But Trayvon was supposed to meekly say, “Yes, sir.”
Millions of blacks mourn the loss of Trayvon Martin not only because he was shot dead and will not ever be able to grow into manhood, but because in his last moments he, in fact, was a man and therefore paid for it with his life. His manhood instincts certainly compelled him to stand up for himself, but he should have known what one black father instructed his unborn son:
You will not survive your encounter, so it is important to remember to show investigators, the courts, and critics alike that you were in fact the victim. This will be difficult as the assumption is ever-present that somehow, in some way, you did something wrong. That perhaps there was something different you could have, should have done. Perhaps you should have worn something different or walked in a less suspicious manner. I assure you, my son, this is not the case. Regardless of your actions, you were not meant to survive. All you can hope for is an easier postmortem investigation. This will be of some comfort to your mother and I as we cope through your loss, and so I ask you to follow these directions carefully.
And then he proceeds to tell him to always assume that his assailant is the police and to meekly clasp his fingers behind his head and prepare to die. Hyperbolic? Perhaps, but the hyperbole makes a point completely unnecessary in the white community: A black boy in a hoodie triggers trigger-happiness.
Or is it even worse? A black boy triggers trigger-happiness? But what spiritual Christians should know beyond a shadow of doubt: split second decisions reveal the true biases of the heart. This is why white Christians should stand up and share in the agony of the black community. We do not want an unjust lynching. We do not want retaliation. We want justice. We who understand human nature should stand with Trayvon’s dad and demand an investigation. We are American Christians. We know our past, we know our sins, and we rightly suspect that the shooter and the police were making blink of an eye decisions that cannot escape the prejudices of the heart. Like a hellish domino effect, one snap judgment call after another springing out of the thumping heart of prejudice can end with a bang.
And a boy lies dead on the street. Skittles and iced tea mingled with blood.