When the verdict in the George Zimmerman Trial came out, the world came to a hush. I, like many others, had a personal interest in the case. We saw ourselves in Trayvon Martin. We saw our brothers, our cousins, our sons, and our friends. And we also saw, again, that our blackness was still viewed as a danger and a nuisance in this country. If the undertones of race weren’t (blatantly) visible in the courtroom, then the realities of race were definitely visible in the commentary surrounding it.
Observing the aftermath of this case, I’ve noticed three things that concern me. That I hope that I can be a change agent for these points, and not just offer lip service.
1. Many Black People, Especially Men, Live Under A Threat of Violence
Trayvon’s situation rang true for so many of us because we have lived through life being followed ourselves. Trayvon was followed simply because of who he was and what he was wearing, not because he was committing a crime. After the verdict, my Twitter and Facebook were filled with black men discussing their stories about how they’ve been followed in stores, harassed by police, and generally had to live in a state of heightened alert simply because of their blackness or attire.
All of the lessons that my parents taught me came flooding back. “Don’t go into stores with bags, someone will think you’re stealing.” “Don’t wear a hoodie and sneakers. Someone could mistake you for a criminal and you’ll blend in.” “If you get stopped by cops, this is what you do.” There were many lessons like these. It was so normal for me and other black men to live by these militant rules that I forgot how much they actually impacted me.
Like so many others, I grew up having to deal with the fact that as a black male, I had to approach the world as if I was already guilty. That affects how you view yourself, others around you, and yes, it does impact your view on white people. How can it not, when you are taught to live in response (and sometimes fear) of them?
2. Many Black People Don’t Understand How Structural Racism Works.
Many responses that I’ve seen demonstrate a critical misunderstanding of how racism was formed, carried out, and sustained in the United States. And, in some ways it is understandable. We live in an age of unparalleled access, where I can go and do many things that my grandparents could’ve only dreamed of.
I went to Rutgers University, a predominantly white institution. No one stopped me from going. I wasn’t jeered at by white people walking around the campus. I didn’t have to sit in a specific spot in the dining hall. Things are good now, right? I played tennis and did martial arts. Wrote for an Asian newsletter. See? Inclusion! Multicultural! Everything is better now.
Except that it’s not. One of the critical things that I learned recently is that access does not equal equality. Too often, especially among upwardly mobile African Americans, the realities of race can seem like a distant past. And to be honest, it can definitely appear that way. I don’t think that the average person is intentionally racist, and hard work can get you very far. However, the danger is that we too often equate individuals taking advantage of access with the dismantling of structural racism. That’s just not true. And people “getting out” and making it doesn’t mean anything if they don’t use their newly gained societal power to not just grant others access, but to move toward equality.
There are structural realities in our culture that still exist, that still create a negative effect on black lives. It doesn’t matter if these black lives are well-educated, well-polished, and well-behaved. Respectability will give the individual access, but it does absolutely nothing to dismantle the reality of systematic racism to bring about equality. In some ways, it only feeds the beast of racism. You just become an exceptional Negro, and not like those other ones.
3. Religious Platitudes Can Be Harmful In Situations Like This.
A Christian response is to trust God. As a Christian, I certainly would encourage that. But for some reason, a lot of the Christian response rang hallow for me and so many others when the verdict was read.
“God will fight our battles.”
“Trusting the will of God.”
“There’s a Judge that will one day sort this out.”
“Show grace and don’t be angry.”
“The most unfair trial happened 2,000 years ago.”
I understand why people say these things. I even believe some of them, in my own way. I don’t think, however, they are helpful things to spout out in the midst of people hurting. And people are really hurting over this verdict.
Perhaps I feel this way because I took pastoral care. In that class, we learned that platitudes and trite sayings, while well-intentioned, really don’t help anyone. In fact, it can make things worse. It’s dangerous to tell someone who has every reason to be angry, not to be angry. Forgiveness is certainly necessary, but it is a process. Forgiveness shouldn’t be coerced instantly. And to urge someone to pray for someone that they are intensely angry with, for good reason, without time to heal? That borders on spiritual abuse.
Where’s another place that you usually hear theology that is similar to this? Funerals. Funerals are where people are laid to rest. Unfortunately, many people’s Christian faith is laid to waste at Funerals as well, simply because the ideas that we push on folks make no sense, and are very harmful to being healthy, whole people.
“My mom died.”
“It’s okay, God called her home. It’s God’s plan.”
“Wait, God gave her cancer? Why?”
“We just have to accept what God allows.”
“But…if God loved mom why would God do that?”
“We have to trust the plan of God.”
We unknowingly fling around our uncritical, unprocessed theology at times when it is not asked for. We alienate people with our coded language. And the very thing that we are saying with the intention of bringing hope actually engenders hopelessness. What brings someone else comfort may cause someone else to go nuts.
And let me say this clearly: To insinuate that it was God’s will that a kid got shot is cruel. And no, using the example of it being God’s will that Jesus die is not a good enough reason to say that.
I don’t think the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement would’ve said that. The Christian leaders certainly believed in the will of God, but that belief didn’t exclude action. Their faith was one that prompted them to action. It was a nonviolent faith, but far from weak. It engaged realities, wasn’t ashamed to call out racism, and eventually extended to advocating for all people. It didn’t shrink away from social responsibility and call it “waiting on God.”
That’s the type of faith that urged Jesus to touch the untouchable, dwell with the unsuitable, and eventually be killed for it.
If our ancestors operated with our common views of God, we’d probably still be in Jim Crow.
Every church isn’t like that though. I’m so thankful to the congregations and pastors that are handling the situation well. It’s very challenging to do. I pray for their continued strength. I also pray that the congregations that are more thoughtful and active in their approach are highlighted more. Also, I want to be one of those ministers.
These are my thoughts, and I hope my thoughts turn into prayers. I know that I have to do something, as a Christian, as a black man, as an American. This case helped bring that to light.