What are we to make of the death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman? Is this one more case of a racist system enabling a white man to get away with murdering a young black man? Is this a simple case of self-defense which is being distorted by those who benefit from stirring up racial animus? What can we learn about racism from this case?
Ultimately, the only complete account of what happened that night comes from George Zimmerman himself. Since murderers are prone to lie in order to protect themselves, it is perfectly understandable that many people find his testimony suspect. However, since the weight of the evidence presented at trial corroborates many of the details of Zimmerman’s story, no one should be surprised that the jury did not believe the prosecution had established Zimmerman’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, while it is certainly possible that Zimmerman pursued Martin until he provoked a confrontation in which he murdered the teen in cold blood, there was no clear evidence that such was actually the case.
What’s more, there is very little evidence that Zimmerman is, in fact, racist toward blacks. In fact, there is a fair amount of evidence to the contrary, such as his black former business partner, the help he offered his black neighbors, and his activism on behalf of a black homeless man who was allegedly beaten by the son of a Sanford police officer.
Those who are convinced Zimmerman was motivated by racism point to his words on the phone with the police dispatcher that night: “F—ing punks! These a—holes always get away!” In their minds, the people Zimmerman was referring to were young black men like Martin. Those who do not see Zimmerman as being motivated by racism would argue that the people he was referring to were simply the criminals (whatever their race) who had perpetrated a string of break-ins and acts of vandalism in Zimmerman’s neighborhood.
It appears to me that those who are convinced Zimmerman targeted an innocent boy simply because he was black must set aside the clearest facts of the case in favor of wild conjecture designed to suit their preconceived notions about how the world works. That is why most of those who cry “racism” in the Zimmerman case tend to talk more about the ongoing reality of racism than about the facts surrounding Martin’s death.
Now, I am perfectly willing to have a discussion about ongoing racism against blacks. As a white man, I am even willing to admit that I may have trouble recognizing such racism when it occurs. I need a reliable guide who can open my eyes to the racism I miss or gloss over. However, I cannot find a reliable guide among those who are currently minimizing Martin’s vices in order to portray him as a saint, who are trivializing the injuries Zimmerman sustained, and who are otherwise ignoring or distorting evidence in this case. They simply don’t strike me as honest.
Nevertheless, I do understand that the fate of Trayvon Martin has struck a chord with many blacks who have felt like they are guilty until proven innocent in the eyes of a society that “favors whiteness.” We will never know for certain whether Zimmerman followed Martin because he was black or because he was, in fact, acting suspiciously, but these people know all too well their own innocence in the face of suspicious glances, hastily-locked car doors, and unwanted scrutiny. They know what it’s like to be viewed with suspicion simply because they are black, and they see that experience reflected in Zimmerman’s suspicion of Martin.
No one likes to feel misjudged, especially when you’re being judged for something you can’t control, such as the color of your skin. It can certainly be galling to feel you must behave a certain way in order to get around people’s prejudices. I think this is what is behind the complaints of some black people that they must dress and act “white” in order to be accepted in white circles, get a good job, or avoid unnecessary hassle by the police. It is unfortunate that such prejudices are still very real. Yet what is the solution? How do we overcome those prejudices? Where should the battle be fought?
Many of the activists who lobby for racial equality (or for that matter, gender equality, gay rights, etc.) believe the fundamental problem is a corrupt “system” which codifies inequality and privileges “whiteness” (or “maleness,” “straightness,” etc.). The problem is not just that individual people are racist or sexist or homophobic, but that the societal deck is stacked against whole groups of people, denying them equal opportunity, consigning them to an endless cycle of poverty, encouraging criminality, and marginalizing them. The next time you hear the talking heads on TV discuss the problems of inequality and prejudice, listen carefully for how quickly they move past criticizing some individual’s particular act of racism to criticizing the “system” and discussing problems of poverty and opportunity. Much of this thinking can be directly traced to the philosophical teachings of Karl Marx, who saw economic inequality as the root of all human evils and who promoted the revolutionary overthrow of the system he regarded as unfair.
The problem with Marxism and the reason the alternative system he proposed has been such an abysmal failure is that it disregards the real cause of all human evils: the sinfulness and corruption of the human heart. As liberationists of various kinds are quick to point out, the Bible has much to say about social injustice and economic inequality. But where exactly does the Bible aim those criticisms? Not at the corruption and injustice of some political or economic system, but at the corruption and injustice of individual people. It is the kings, the judges, the rich, and the strong whom the Bible lambasts for exploiting the poor, the weak, the orphan, and the widow. After all, the “system”—whatever system that is—is run by individuals whose hearts are “deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9, NIV). If there is racism in the “system,” it is because there is still racial prejudice in the hearts of the individuals who make up the system. And that means all the individuals who make up the system: both those in power and those who are disenfranchised.
Are young black men still viewed with suspicion when they walk through a department store? Then we need to address the racial animus in the hearts of the department store personnel. Conversely, if a disproportionate number of shoplifters happen to be young black men, we need to realize that the suspicions of the department store personnel are not merely a matter of racism.
Young black men are not the only ones who get “profiled” in department stores. A few years ago my then preteen daughters and their friends were asked to leave a store because the store owner said, “I don’t trust you!” As good kids who were only looking through greeting cards and giggling too loudly, my girls were incensed at the prejudicial treatment they had received. And while I believed that store owner was totally out of line, I also tried to help my girls understand that he probably has had problems with girls their age in the past. How can he possibly know they are good girls who would never think of shoplifting?
Those who focus on the racism within the “system” are always fighting for political change while bemoaning the ongoing presence of racist attitudes. At the same time, they have to whitewash (forgive the pun) the problematic behavior of certain black individuals who reinforce negative racial stereotypes and make white racists feel their views are justified. Finally, they imply that every white person who abhors racism is really racist without knowing it because they are still part of a fundamentally racist system.
Those who focus on fighting the racism within the human heart are attacking racism at its source. Whatever our race, we all tend to indulge in racial stereotypes and to view the “other” with suspicion. Whatever our opinions of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, we all tend, like them, to prejudge (and misjudge) people by their appearance and the group to which they belong. Whatever our cultural background, we all tend to assume that our culture is just a little bit better than all other cultures. It all boils down to sinful people trying to think better of themselves by thinking worse of others. In the end, racism is merely one symptom of the universal human condition, and it, like all other sins, can only be eradicated through a transformation of the heart.