Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Reflections on Zimmerman Case

It’s one thing to question the outcome in the George Zimmerman case and to re-spark dialogue about race in the US, but it’s another to scapegoat him for the jury’s verdict in a state where “stand your ground” is the law and “reasonable doubt” is always the standard for guilty in such cases everywhere.  Many lawyers, commentators and ordinary citizens do not believe the prosecution proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt.   

It’s one thing to mourn for Trayvon, and to continue to examine race issues, another to spew hate, threaten Zimmerman and his family, make death threats that send them into hiding.

It's one thing to protest against injustice, for changes in the law, and in attitudes as well, but it’s another to take out all one’s rage on one human being who is as much a victim of our society as anyone else. I don't think Zimmerman acted with malicious intent. I know this is debatable, and that's okay.  I think the situation was tragic.  But Zimmerman is not the embodiment of evil, the incarnation of evil racism.  He just helped a family stuck in an SUV as the result of a truck accident; a random act of kindness, a good deed. 

Do any of us know how we would react if we felt threatened? If some fear, conscious or unconscious, triggered some survival reaction?  How many of us have crossed the street if a black person is following us? Distanced ourselves from a group of black teenagers?  We are all victims of racism and stereotypes, black and white, white and black Latinos, new and old immigrants. Most of us grew up in segregated America and imbibed the culture.  It’s not good, but social pressure and cultural programming exist.

I know. It’s hard for most white Americans who ease through life on white privilege to feel the consequences of subtle racism, the kind the president talked about when he said that Trayvon Martin “could have been me 35 years ago.”  The kind that evokes the "two-ness" that W.E.B. DuBois talked about:  the focus on the color of our skin, not the content of our character. It’s good the president reminds us of the pain this causes, the violence to the human spirit.

Many of us with immigrant grandparents can relate: we remember the animosity against newcomers.  My Italian grandparents could buy a house only in the Italian section of Buffalo.  My mother, a teacher and opera singer who spoke several languages, was denied entrance to the University of Rochester because it had met its “Italian quota.”  Yes, an Italian quota.  My sis came home crying after a name-calling session at a new school that sent my Dad to the principal’s office to decry the use of epithets like “dago” and “wop.”  People have asked me if my family were mafia. Still do.  Did it matter that our family was educated, cultured, enamoured of the American dream?  Nope. Did the taunting stop once people got to know us? Yes. Does the pain linger?  Sure, the memory does, but  things change overtime; my kids and grandkids, a blend of dozens of ethnicities, know nothing about this kind of ethnocentrism.

I suppose you can argue it’s not the same thing as racism.  And it’s not, exactly.  But it is about stereotypes, profiling, injustice, and intolerance.

That’s why ongoing dialogue about race is a good thing, and also about immigration policy. The history of America is a history of struggling to live up to our ideals.  America is a work in progress.  "The arc of history is toward justice," Martin Luther King, Jr. believed.  We need to keep this in perspective as we work together, across race, ethnicity and class, to solve our problems and achieve a more just and enlightened society. 

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