Sunday, July 14, 2013

It Is Our Responsibility to Fix This

I was in New Zealand when the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act came down. I sat in our hotel room in Auckland after the kids had gone to sleep, and struggled to explain to my Kiwi husband why I was so saddened by that ruling.

Last night, I was sitting in my backyard with friends, finishing up a dinner of New Zealand meat pies, which I'd spent hours making as a treat for my husband and our friends, who are also New Zealanders. It was a beautiful evening, the sort of evening that makes me love living here. One of our friends heard his phone's news alert, and checked, and told us the verdict. We all stared glumly at our empty plates for awhile, and then Petunia came out of the tent Mr. Snarky had set up for them to play in (his plan to keep them out of my way in the kitchen). She was pretending to be a robot, and was so cute that we all laughed. And then our evening went on as if nothing had happened.

That is white privilege. I can be saddened and even sickened by the verdict, but I can, in the end, go on with my life as if nothing has changed, because for me, nothing has.

I do not for a minute think I have anything to say about the Trayvon Martin case that hasn't been said better and more eloquently by others. But I feel I must acknowledge my privilege.

Here are some of the things others have said that you should read:

Jelani Cobb at The New Yorker.

"The familiarity dulled the sharp edges of the tragedy. The decision the six jurors reached on Saturday evening will inspire anger, frustration, and despair, but little surprise, and this is the most deeply saddening aspect of the entire affair. From the outset— throughout the forty-four days it took for there to be an arrest, and then in the sixteen months it took to for the case to come to trial—there was a nagging suspicion that it would culminate in disappointment. Call this historical profiling."

Cord Jefferson at Gawker:

"If you’re a black man and you don’t remain vigilant of and obsequious to white people’s panic in your presence...then you must be prepared to be arrested, be beaten, be shot through the heart and lung and die on the way home to watch a basketball game with your family. And after you are dead, other blacks should be prepared for people to say you are a vicious thug who deserved it." 

Greg Younge at The Guardian:

"Zimmerman's not guilty verdict will be contested for years to come. But he passed judgement on Trayvon that night summarily.
"Fucking punks," Zimmerman told the police dispatcher that night. "These assholes. They always get away."
So true it's painful. And so predictable it hurts."

There is also this post spelling out the hypothetical case with the races reversed.

 And this tweet:

This is wrong. And white America needs to fix it. Much like we cannot expect women alone to fix the problem of our absence from positions of power, we cannot expect African-Americans to fix the problem of how white people view and treat them. The people with the power have to own the problem and address it. It is uncomfortable and difficult and we have the privilege of being able to ignore the problem most of the time if we want to. But we need to fight the discomfort and fear and work to fix the problem. Ultimately, we're the only ones who can change this.


  1. Anonymous9:37 PM

    Any link to the new zealand news you are talking about?

    1. That was a reference to the US Supreme Court throwing out apart of our Voting Rights Act, which happened while I was on vacation.

    2. I edited the first sentence of this post to make it clear which Supreme Court I am talking about. Sorry for the confusion.

  2. I got an email from a commenter who wants to be anonymous, and was having trouble getting the comments box to work:

    I just had a discussion with a friend of mine about this verdict. He was happy about the verdict because he thinks that, because there was still some ambiguity as to exactly what happened and whether Zimmerman was acting in self defense, "innocent until proven guilty" should hold. And that the fact that the defendant is a racist asshole shouldn't sway the jury in the face of the law. In fact, my friend's point of view made me think of the OJ Simpson case--how it came down to innocent until proven guilty--and reasonable doubt. And my friend was claiming that if we have bad laws, we should change the laws.

    So I see my friend's point of view, and agree that we should change bad laws. But I also see and am deeply troubled by the racial aspect of the case. The link about what would happen if the races were reversed was very powerful, but what would have happened if there had been two white men? Or two black men? And would it be different if the young man had been covered in tattoos and piercings, or had been a bad student istead of an "A- and B- student", as the article quoted?

    Which brings me to ask--what can be done? I think what you said about how white people have to take responsibility is true. But it also makes me think of a relatively harmless experience I had on the train a few weeks ago: I was sitting on the window seat, wearing biking pants and reading my iPhone on a relatively crowded train. A professionally dressed man sat down next to me. I didn't really look up and kept reading my iPhone. A few minutes later I felt his hand contacting the side of my thigh. I assumed he didn't have enough space in his seat and scooted over, so there were several inches between my thigh and the original location on his hand. I scooted over again….and his had was on my thigh again. Eventually he started sliding his hand down my leg, repeatedly. This made me very uncomfortable. After 15 minutes of this I stood up and moved to a different seat. And when I stood up to move, the man also left and went into a different train car.

    In retrospect, I think it was stupid of me not to get up right away after I started feeling uncomfortable. But this man was black. I am white. I have been taught in school about racism, and have read a lot of articles about how awful it is for black people to have people automatically assume that they were criminals. So in this case I kept myself in an uncomfortable situation for far too long because I didn't want to offend some guy who was in fact sexually harassing me. Something like this where I have been physically uncomfortable,has *never* happened to me before. But over the last 6 years that I have lived my big west coast city, I have had random men approach me maybe a total of 6-8 times on the street and tell me that I look good, or have a nice ass, or whatever. These comments have all been harmless. But the men who made these comments have all been black. So yeah, probably on some level, based on my experiences, I'm a little bit more wary of attracting unwanted attention from black me than from white men. Does this make me part of the race problem in America? I don't *think* I'm racist, but of course no one thinks that about themselves.

    I don't mean to trivialize the awful awful Zimmerman case by saying that any of my experiences are in any way comparable AT ALL. But at the same time, those are my experiences. I don't want to be contributing to racism in our society but I also don't want to keep myself in an uncomfortable situation like I had on the train because I don't want to appear to be a racist.

    1. Your friend is right that it is entirely possible that jury looked at the evidence presented at trial and the laws and found they couldn't convict. I did not follow the trial closely enough to have a strong opinion on this- it hurt my heart too much.

      But that doesn't make what Zimmerman did morally right, and that is why I am so sickened by this outcome.

      Perhaps the next thing to do is to ask why this happened. Why did George Zimmerman have a gun that was so easily concealed? Why did he feel empowered to take it out with him that night? Those are things that could perhaps be addressed by better laws.

      But then there is the question of why did Zimmerman believe Trayvon Martin was a threat when he first saw the guy wearing a hoodie? We'll never know with 100% certainty, because Zimmerman is unlikely to be honest about this- and to be fair to him, most white people are not honest about their reactions to black men. I did not find any of his alternate explanations plausible, though. I think he looked at that young man and saw a black youth and assumed that he was going to do something bad. THAT is the part that white Americans have to own and think about and try to find a way to fix, and changing laws won't do a damn thing to fix it. It is harder than that.

      About your experience on the train- I think that the place where the racism in society and the sexism in society meets is a particularly fraught place. I will say that I had an experience similar to yours once, but the guy who stroked my leg was white (and I was on an airplane). I also didn't say anything. I think there is a certain shock to having someone touch you like that without asking and we don't really know how to respond so we just don't.

      But... I went to college at the University of Chicago, which is on the south side of Chicago. There were a lot of black people around the neighborhood, particularly away from the center of Hyde Park, where it meets up with other neighborhoods. One day I was walking down one of the main streets, and I saw a group of 5-6 young black men walking towards me. And I crossed the street. I told myself at the time that I would have done the same for a group of 5-6 white men, and probably I would have- I was young and had a good figure and men, particularly in groups, tended to say things about my looks and I would get tired of dealing with it so I'd just avoid it as much as I could. However, at the time I didn't really understand how my crossing the street felt to those young men. Now I do, and I maybe would make a different choice. There was no credible physical risk- it was broad daylight on a busy street. So maybe I'd take the risk of receiving annoying comments to try to fight the stereotypes. But of course now I am older and less fit and it is very rare for any man to say anything to me on the street! (I'm not complaining about that, btw- I consider it one of the consolations of aging.)

      So in short: yes, a fraught area, and I have no easy answers. Thanks for the comment.

    2. I have been thinking something very much along the lines of what your friend said and what Cloud has expressed. There's a big difference under the law between morally wrong and guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The latter is a very, very high standard, and while it may make us sick to the stomach at times, we would be very happy if we or any loves ones were ever to be wrongfully accused of a crime. To clarify, I'm not saying Zimmerman was wrongfully accused, I honestly don't know enough of the details. I'm just saying that the bar of "beyond a reasonable doubt" is high for a reason. We are willing to let a certain number of guilty people go free so that innocents will not be wrongly imprisoned. It's not a perfect system, but show me a better one.

  3. Anonymous8:05 AM

    Thanks for this post. I agree with you completely. But I'm not sure how to help fix this problem. I live in California so legislators in Florida have no reason to respond if I urge them to change the "stand your ground" law. I write letters and call my representatives, but this doesn't seem to affect how they vote. I donate money to political groups, but then again, the problems in America are deeply rooted and systematic. Anything that I can do feels like trying to stop climate change by turning off my lights; it's a step in the right direction, but without systematic change on a national level my efforts ultimately don't amount to much.

    Do you have any thoughts on specific, individual actions that can help fix this problem (perhaps based on your experience working towards gun regulation?)

    1. Hard question! And I am not sure I am the best person to answer it. I'm still struggling with the same question.

      I'm also not sure the gun regulation advocacy is the best example- although I do think the two are related. The people paying the price for our permissive gun culture are more likely to be minorities, and I have a strong suspicion that this is part of the reason why it is hard to get people to acknowledge the toll guns are extracting on us.

      But I digress. I can tell you that the thing that I did that made me feel most like I was making a difference on the gun issue was to take a deep breath and dive into some of the online discussions, to refuse to allow the lies and fear-mongering to stand unchallenged. However, this was also the most draining thing I did on the gun issue, and I have found that I can only take it in short bursts. The people on the other side will write the most vile things about you (although since I kept my pseudonym gender neutral, they mostly assumed I was male and therefore didn't threaten to rape or kill me...)

      So I do think online activism can make a difference, if you can keep your tone reasoned and sympathetic and try to educate people about privilege. It has been my experience that people do not generally like this education, and repetition from multiple sources is helpful. And more generally, I think we need to stop silently accepting racism and confront it whenever we find it. It is like the quote from that awesome Australian general's take down of sexists: the standard you walk past is the standard you accept. I do not accept racism as a standard, so I will not walk past it anymore. I will speak up.

      One thing I had been trying to do before this case, and will try to do even more now, is seek out writing from Black people. I started with deciding to read Ta-Nehisi Coates regularly and have been trying to expand my horizons from there. Twitter is a great way to get more diverse viewpoints into your mind, too.

      Roxane Gay posted an excellent reading list. I found Kiese Laymon's piece to be particularly powerful and challenging. I had to keep forcing myself to stop judging his decisions, because the whole point of the piece was to show me why he made so many decisions that someone like me could judge to be bad.

      So I guess I'm saying that I think continuing your education of what it means to not be white in America is a good thing to do, even if it doesn't feel like it is doing much, because that knowledge will become a part of you and help you find the words and the will to confront racism when you find it.

      There was a good anecdote at the end of Mychal Denzel Smith's post at The Nation today, which he used to segue into a powerful ending that I think speaks to your question:

      "What’s next is that each of us take whatever gift we have and use it in a way that honors and values black life. That is the legacy Trayvon Martin can leave to this world."

      I'm in technology, so one of the things I have done (although this was before the verdict) is to support efforts to increase diversity in technology (e.g., Black Girls Code).

      Those are my ideas. I'm very open to hearing other people's ideas on this, too.

  4. oilandgarlic1:07 PM

    I can't say that I followed the case closely. However, after reading a bit about it post-verdict, I do think it's likely that the jury was hard-pressed to find Zimmerman guilty due to that "stand your ground" law. That's probably where the change needs to happen but this a very American mindset. Even though I'm pretty pacifist, I don't know what I would do if I felt threatened.

    I think the biggest mistake was that Zimmerman followed Trayton Martin after a police dispatcher told him not too. And it's likely that race could have played a part in that bad decision. However, if he was being beaten (and he had wounds/bruises), he probably did feel threatened. To me, a gun is EXCESSIVE use of force but that law means it's ok to defend yourself as long as you feel threatened.

  5. Engineering Elf11:53 AM

    In our neighborhood we have a diversity of people but unfortunately there are gangs who recruit younger, often black, kids. Due to the court system being over taxed most court cases involving minors seem to be thrown out (I assume in cases of manslaughter/murder they are not).

    This results in the neighborhood being wary of groups of black kids, especially those being boisterous or getting into back yards. It is something like the do I cross the street, or do I get up and move issue. It is a choice between the safer thing and putting yourself out there in the hopes of encouraging goodness in humanity. As needed as putting yourself out there I often can not bring myself to suffer the risk.

    This doesn't really reflect on the Zimmerman case, but the case reminded me of the less desirable happenings in our corner of our east coast city & how we react.

    1. When I was in college, most of the random street crime students experienced was committed by young black men, just because of where the college was located. But- and to me this is a really important thing- the vast majority of young black men I came across in the neighborhood were NOT about to commit some crime.

      I think that the problem in our culture is that the messages we get from media, and from other people, conflate those two things, and paints all black men as threats. We get stereotypes instead of nuanced portraits of actual people. That is one of the things I think we white people need to change. We need to start insisting on the full picture.

      One thing I think we need to ask ourselves about what is going on in your neighborhood now and what was happening in my college neighborhood is why the gangs are able to recruit those young men. I am no sociologist, but I suspect the answer to that question would not show our society in a particularly flattering light. I suspect the deep alienation that comes through in some of the links in Roxane Gay's reading list (for instance) is at least partly to blame. And that alienation is our fault, maybe not individually, but culturally. So, while we have every right to take steps to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, we should also ask ourselves what we can do to fix the problem at the root of the situation.

      It is hard and messy and I don't really know the right thing to do. I just know that we have to start trying.


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