People's experiences are real. However, one component of an experience may not be accurate: our assumptions. We all see things through a lense. Our lenses are shaped by personal experience, but those experiences are also shaped by our beliefs and assumptions. Race is one of those things which shape our experiences. Black people operate with different assumptions than white people. White people outnumber black people (in the US) and black people suffer as a result of that. White people have more power and influence, in general, and that gives white people an advantage. People also tend to relate to members of their own race.
I have worked extensively with black youth in two of my "previous lives" as a high school chaplain in an urban setting and as a social worker. I have been a surrogate father for many of them, and it was as likely for a black youth to call me "daddy" as a white. Even so, that does not mean that I have a deeper insight into the black experience. What I do know is the kids I worked with as a social worker believed that they were more at risk in Germantown (upscale suburb) than they were in their own neighborhood (inner city Memphis). No doubt white cops in white cities keep a closer tab on black youth and hastle them more. No doubt. Also, no doubt that the same white cops were not a leading cause of black youth deaths. The facts were not clear to my boys.
One thing which is clear today, the media seems to be indicating that a black boy killed by an Hispanic man in Florida under questionable circumstances is much more worthy of attention than many black boys killed by many black boys/men. Hence, Chicago, which seems to be a shooting gallery of late where black young men are literally dying by the hundreds http://www.blackyouthproject.com/2012/01/530-young-people-murdered-in-chicago-since-2008/ has not created nation wide marches. Nor are we hearing about angry protestors assaulting people from Chicago in the name of the homicide victims in that city. No one is organizing marchs in Memphis about Chicago. No famous musicians are boycotting Illinois because of the killings...
Black pain finds its focus and expression in many of these "media circus" trials. OJ Simpson was the first (stunning) revelation of the different views. One black co-worker told me that white people did not want to see a black man be successful so that is why OJ was targeted. He believed that, even when I told him that earlier that day I had received a brochure highlighting OJ as the star of several training videos (I was the training director at the time). I know the color green (money) was more important than the iconic stars race and I know OJ made money for white people and every one of those training videos which they were marketing were suddenly useless at a loss of tens of thousands of dollars... What I did not know was the black experience of prejudice and maltreatment. This experience influenced how this man saw the world and the assumptions which he operated with. It does not mean he was right, but it did make sense of why he thought what he did.
The statements being made on TV by many blacks the past few days have to be seen and heard from that point of view. There is emotion under the words. The case is a convenient outlet for deeper feelings. White responses are likewise generated by other experiences and view points.
I have heard several times that the jury verdict means that "white people have been given the right to hunt down and shoot black children." If that is true (I think it is not) then the good news for black children is it is a right which will not be exercised by many. In fact, most white people will continue to never, ever hunt down and shoot anyone, much less a black child. The stats http://wmbriggs.com/blog/ reveal two interesting facts, to quote from Briggs:
"Blacks who commit homicide do so at a rate about 7.5 times larger than whites who commit homicide.... This disparity also exists for other crimes: blacks commit them at about 7-10 times the rates of whites."
"Blacks kill at higher rates than they are killed. Interestingly, the difference in the killer/killed rate appears roughly constant for most years, and narrowing slightly in recent years."
Whatever else may be true about Martin's unfortunate death, it is clear that the US is not a place where white people are hunting down and killing black people. In fact, most black people are murdered by other black people, just as white people kill mostly white people. In fact, black people murder white people at a much higher rate than white people murder black people. [But it is not all bad, one positive trend is that the US is a place where less and less people are murdering each other. The rate is about half of what it was in the 90's.]
This is from a different source. For homicide trends in the US here is the government website's "Highlights:
- In the last decade (since 2000) the homicide rate declined to levels last seen in the mid-1960s.
- Based on data from 1980 and 2008, males represented 77% of homicide victims and nearly 90% of offenders. The victimization rate for males (11.6 per 100,000) was 3 times higher than the rate for females (3.4 per 100,000). The offending rate for males (15.1 per 100,000) was almost 9 times higher than the rate for females (1.7 per 100,000).
Was Trayvon "a child" as we hear over and over? If reports are correct that he was over 6 foot tall (I do not know) it is fair to say if he is a child, he is a grown child. [My 15 year old son is over 6 foot. I clearly do not advocate shooting teens. I would probably 'feel' he was a child if he was gunned down on his way home from a convenience store.] The question is, does using the word child imply that 17 year olds are too young to be dangerous? You can see from the site below that .5% of murders were committed by children under 14. The 14-17 age cohort accounted for 10.6% of murders (they only make up 5.7% of the population) and 18-24 year olds commit 37.5% of murders (while making up 10.6% of the population). Not all children are safe. Young people a bit older and younger than Trayvon murder at rates two to three the rate of their numbers. When I taught high school one of my favorite kids, Andrew, was sixteen. I was thirty. He stood 5' 8" and about 190 pounds. I was 5' 10" and 180. He came up behind me and put me in a bear hug to play with me. He literally crushed the air out of my lungs and I could not breath. At that time I was weightlifting and could bench 200 and squat over 300. That young man was still much stronger than me. So even a "child" of 17 can have manlike characteristics.
It may not have been Zimmerman's role to follow the young man (that is clearly a precipitating factor), but there is a fair question to ask. Are there legitimate roles for people to play in the policing of their own neighborhoods? Police are not always dependable, recall Asian store keepers standing in the streets of LA keeping rioters from looting their shops. I may think it was wrong but their shops (and livelihood) were intact at the end of the day while other stores were emptied of wares and burned to the ground (because people were "protesting" an unjust verdict).
Were the jurors right? We were not there (in court or at the scene of the crime). We do not know exactly what happened. (Really no one knows) It does appear that choices were made by both people which led to a deadly confrontation. Zimmerman acted rashly and placed himself in a situation which increased the likelihood of a conflict. Martin clearly did something. We do not know what. [In truth, neither of them could recount exactly what took place. Memory is notoriously faulty and memory in extremely stressful circumstances is even less trustworthy. The part of the brain that kicks in is reactive, while stress tends to shut down the rational brain.] I think it is fair to say that Zimmerman was wrong to approach the boy, but I do not know if he did. I do not know what Martin did (he did NOT deserve to be shot and killed). Was he acting macho in the the face of perceived threat? Did racial profiling occur ("dangerous black man" vs. "cracka")? Was testosterone to blame? Had the same confrontation taken place the day before or the day after would it have possibly ended peacably? ["Hello young man, I don't believe I know you. I am George, the local neighborhood watch captain" ""Hello, I am Trayvon, I am visiting my dad's girlfriend and just went out for a soda and skittles." "Okay, sorry to have bothered you, have a great night!"]
Was the law broken? Was there reasonable doubt that it was a murder? Was the criteria present to justify the shooting (legally if not morally)? I did not sit in the courtroom and I do not know. I do know that the law is not always sensible and somethings are legal even if not right (like abortion). I know for parents who lose a son the pain and heartache are unbearable and for a racial community to endure yet another murder of one of its own taps into deep feelings of anger and despair. Those feelings are connected to white racism (both actual and perceived) and black struggles (both self generated and other caused). Those feelings are generated by emotions and perceptions and assumptions and beliefs.
I am a white guy who tends to see the world from a particular perspective. I do not see things through black eyes or a black perspective. I can't. Still, I do not see how turning this into a race war benefits anyone. I know why many white people see young black men (even a 17 year old "child") as dangerous. It is not fair, but it is also not ridiculous. People's assumptions lead them to view these young men (as "our children" or as "dangerous"). Even though the majority of black young men are not dangerous a disproportionate number of them are. Black people do well to admit this latter fact. White people do well to remember the former is true. All of us need to understand that the views of each of us is filtered through all manner of beliefs and assumptions. Some of it we do not control. And it is hard to be aware of our assumptions because they are assumed! We all pick and choose what we focus on and how we interpret the information. We all spin. we all filter out some things and emphasize others. We all do it. There is no way to completely avoid it. The conflicts and differences are real. We need to listen more and argue less. We need to, but even if we do sometimes we will still end up disagreeing. We will still end up saying, "Zimmerman should have gotten the death penalty" or "He should have gone to jail for twenty years" or "He should have got off" or "He was a hero." We will say it because we believe it and we will believe it because of our experiences and beliefs. We will not bridge every gap and the tension and conflict will remain... So we pray, "Come Lord Jesus!" and "Deliver us from evil!"