This week in a small courtroom in Sanford, Florida, George Zimmerman was cleared of the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and the charges that he was the cause of the tragic events that led up to the shooting. Accusations of racism flew from Zimmerman’s opponents while his supporters called young Martin a thug, a gang member and a drug dealer. Not only are these allegations intellectually lazy, they represent an easy way out for those who want to skim the surface in this case.
As a white, conservative, gun rights advocate, pro-life female who happens to be married to a black conservative, I know what it’s like to have others attach labels: I’m not a woman because I believe life begins at conception or my husband is a race traitor, Oreo or Uncle Tom because of his conservative views. No one asks why we believe as we do because it’s easier to slap a label on us and move on.
My husband has childhood friends who won’t let me into their homes, not because I am white but because of my political beliefs. Instead of ending friendships, we’ve chosen to address and combat that line of thinking instead of running away from it. It isn’t easy but we deal with it.
Like most people, my understanding of racial tensions stem from my childhood and where I lived. I grew up in a small New England seaside suburb with a small town feel and no people of color. It was a great town to live in with loads of happy memories. As a child, I took no notice of the lack of diversity. It was all I knew. As a teenager, I came in contact with people of color via a program offered by the public high school which bused minorities from other areas so they could share in a better school system.
As a young adult, I chose to live in the outskirts of Washington, D.C. because I could have encounters with “big city” living while enjoying the security of small town life. I have never been robbed or had my home broken into, so, my only “negative” experience with law enforcement has been getting traffic tickets that I clearly deserved. When I see policemen, my experiences tell me they are there to help.
But my world is different today because my son is bi-racial, growing up in a world that has biases and labels. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, I’ve had to make some tough decisions about how to address racial issues with him.
I watched with interest, and often disgust, at how the media portrayed a young black man. Sometimes he was an innocent victim and at others, depending on the reporter or news outlet, he was nothing but a criminal who got what he deserved.
George Zimmerman was immediately labeled a racist. The FBI thought otherwise. And although I don’t think he was some raging racist out to kill to a black kid for having the audacity to walk in his neighborhood, a mother has lost her son. The reality of this world is that any woman raising a black child, especially a son, has issues that other women simply don’t have.
Racial profiling IS a hard, cold reality in this country. In the small town where I grew up, the lack of any serious crime left our little police force with a lot of time on its hands. One of my first boyfriends happened to be Asian. Whenever he drove to my house, it was not uncommon for the police follow him. He didn’t “belong.” He must be up to no good. It didn’t last forever, but it did happen.
Every single person of color I knew back then could tell me a story about their racial profiling experience. Many people told me that it was a common occurrence to be tracked by the police, once the sun set in our town. They were “guilty” of driving while black/brown/yellow.
And then I experienced such profiling first-hand. When my daughter was 18-months-old, we were visiting a large mall in Northern Virginia. It was near her bed time and sugar was a no-no. But, she spotted some candy and wanted it. She became fussy and ran over to Daddy to see if she could use those baby blues to get what she wanted.
As he picked her up while she was screaming the word “candy”, I happened to notice another shopper looking strangely at this exchange before making her way over a store employee. I don’t know what she said, but it was enough to alarm the security guard and send him marching towards my husband and distraught daughter. As I watched what could be a horrible incident unfold, I sprang into action and rushed over to them both and kissed them before the guard could get too close.
That woman assumed that my daughter was being held by some big, black guy who meant to harm her instead of seeing this was his own daughter experiencing a public meltdown. She took no note that they obviously knew one another or that my daughter was not the least bit afraid of being in his arms. My husband had been profiled for trying to explain to his daughter that mommy wasn’t going to give in and no candy was forthcoming. It upset me far more than it upset him because he’d been there before.
So I teach my son to be respectful of the police; to always do what they say; to at no point say anything other than “yes sir,” “no sir,” and answer direct questions. And while I don’t think it is uncommon for any parent to do the same, I also explain to him that sometimes the police are going to ask questions of him that they won’t ask of his white sister and mother. That is just reality of his life. Unless you live it you can’t understand it, let alone judge it.
It is very understandable to me that Trayvon Martin felt that calling 911 wasn’t a desirable thing to do. He was an inner city black teenager; distrust of the police was just a part of the program for him. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.
So we can continue to make judgments about this case based on simple labels or we can really examine the sociological and societal reasons for these particular sets of circumstances and why they were allowed to happen. Zimmerman was well aware of the crime rates in his city and his community of condos; 80% of the suspects in the recent robberies of his complex were identified as black men. Not unlike the woman in the suburban mall bookstore, he made an assumption, but in his case the assumption came from something real, not imagined.
Trayvon Martin was simply labeled a thug. We cannot deny that he was showing signs of problems in his life. He smoked pot and it was in his system when he was killed. He had some issues in school and there are lots of rumors of all kinds about him including theft. None of this justifies his death. Past behavior is not always indicative of perceived present or future behavior. Yes, Trayvon Martin showed signs of trouble but he had no criminal record.
On that night if his death, Martin was being followed by a strange man. Anyone who tells me that if they were out walking in the dark, on a rainy night and saw a stranger following them in a car and then that stranger excited that car and followed them on foot, that they wouldn’t feel intimidated or even afraid, is a liar!
The man who was following Trayvon Martin on that fateful night was the only one of the two with an arrest record and provable acts of violence. George Zimmerman had a restraining order for battering his girlfriend, an arrest record for assaulting a police officer and former co-workers claim he was fired from a security guard job because he was too aggressive. It’s an easy leap to believe that George Zimmerman simply overreacted.
And for the record, anyone who attempts to use Martin’s past behavior against him while washing away the past behavior of Zimmerman is dishonest and hypocritical.
As the mom of a biracial child, it disturbs me that Trayvon Martin was labeled so easily. One day my son could be labeled a thug after being shot and killed in the midst of muddled and murky circumstances. One day my white daughter could be labeled a racist simply because she is involved in an incident with a person of color. Neither of these situations is out the realm of possibilities.
We need to understand why inner city youth don’t always a see a way out of their circumstances. We need to question the overwhelming high crimes rates in black communities. We need find a way to improve educational opportunities so that minority children don’t only see the bleakest of futures but a glimmer of hope. We need to search ourselves and ask why we so quickly label any black young man as a thug or a criminal. We need to ask ourselves why a man who thought he was doing a good deed was quickly labeled a racist. It’s time for us to look into our collective souls and ask ourselves what our own particular biases are and what we can do to overcome them.
George Zimmerman created the environment that set in the motion the circumstances that directly led to the shooting death of an unarmed teenager. He did not go out that night looking to kill someone but he did.
We allowed the label of racist to become the focus of the investigation into Zimmerman. People responded with by labeling Martin a thug. Those quick labels are one of the reasons that I believe this case became so polarized and politicized. Those same politics led to Zimmerman being overcharged and not found guilty of second-degree murder and not guilty of the lesser included offense of manslaughter. Had he been initially charged with involuntary manslaughter justice might have been served.
As far as I’m concerned, there were far too many labels put on both parties involved in this case that didn’t advance the cause of justice at all. Now a man who rightly belongs in jail has gone free. Maybe it is time we all realize that these labels we are so quick to use, have very real and unfortunate consequences.
Guest contributor Kim Jossfolk is a conservative political blogger and stay at home mom living in the greater New York City area.