Reflections on the Trayvon Martin Tragedy: Part I

"There is a tendency to judge a race, a nation or any distinct group by its least worthy members"
     -Eric Hoffer, Philosopher and Presidential Medal of Freedom writer

"It's clear that an essential way to stop the violence and the despair in our culture is to engage in activities that bring us empathy and conviviality."
     -Cecile Andrews, in Living Room Revolution

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.
     -Romans 12:14-16 NIV

The entire tragedy of the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman incident and trial is almost too large to behold, too deep to describe, and so personal that it is hard to control the emotions that it provokes.  It has been several days since the verdict of not-guilty was issued and I have read some superb blogs and commentaries regarding the legal issues, the reasons for the verdict, and analysis of almost every part of the crime, from the crime itself to its implications for our society.

I want to take a couple of days to unpack the pain that I am experiencing and its implications for our society and culture at large.  I recognize that I come to these issues from a distinct socio-cultural-historical view point and that my perceptions are influenced by my faith, age, ethnicity, parental status, and personal history.  We all have such baggage in analysis.  However, I hope that readers can appreciate that these things also can help us have insights that may not be apparent to many.

When I began my medical training, I began in Psychiatry.  I recall reading a study out of New York where a psychiatrist made the simple observation that psychiatrists often perform significantly more detailed evaluations and assessments when the patients were ethnically, socio-economically, and culturally similar.  This has been proven over and over again (For a fantastic review of cultural bias in mental health, read the article from the American Journal of Public Health in 2003 ).  There is a sub-conscious degree of empathy and compassion that is present when we are with people we think we can identify with.  This is not necessarily a negative thing as it helps to build community and bolster cohesiveness.  The flip side of this is that we also have a tendency to stereotype, often negatively, those who are culturally, ethinically, and economically different from us.  As quoted above, we often perpetuate and justify our stereotypes based upon the worst individuals of that group, not the actual peoples or connections we have had.

So, my first reflection is how this case shows the disintegration of community.  George Zimmerman could not see Trayvon Martin as part of the community, nor could he identify with him or his family as one of the tenants in his neighborhood.  He literally, instantly assessed him as a threat to peace (by his own admission) and could not fathom that he was the child of one of the people he was trying to protect.  There was nothing in Trayvon's behavior, his dress (he was wearing a hoodie because it was raining), or his location that would alert and warrant such suspicion.

Regardless of the many attempts by many to suggest that racial profiling was not involved, it is clear that George Zimmerman stalked Trayvon because he was an African-American walking were George Ziimmerman did not think he should be.  When you listen to George Zimmerman's statements, you will see that there was curse-filled stereotyping to the 911 operator based upon appearance, not behavior.  It is this stereotypical assessment that began a series of actions that led to the tragedy of Trayvon Martin's death.  Racialization began the avalanche of the poor decisions that spun out of control.

Its interesting to me how subtle this identification can be and how powerful its implications are.  We see it at work in the jury. One juror, spoke of the "riots" in Sanford after his death, but there were no riots.  That misinformation informed her understanding of the nature of the African-American community from which she saw Trayvon's family as part.   When asked by Zimmerman's lawyers to describe what she knew of Trayvon, she simply said "He was a boy of color".  During her post-trial interview, the same juror called George Zimmerman as "George", demonstrating a personal tie.  She stated that she felt "George's heart was in the right place". There was no evidence of those sentiments, those were value judgments based upon her identification and projection of George Zimmerman.  She then states that "I think Trayvon got mad and attacked him". Again, there was no evidence presented that proved that. She also felt that the prosecution witness Rachel Jeantel, had "no credibility" because the juror perceived that she "felt inadequate towards everyone because of her education and her communication skills.  I just felt sad for her.".  Once again, the value judgement of credibility rests on cultural differences, not the truthfulness of her statements.  I could go on and on, but what I want to express is how the crime and the trial were biased by racializing processes.

It comes down to our understanding of community.  Racialization and racism represents processes which destroy a sense of community and prevent the creation of a safe, democratic, and civil community.  It prevents, what Martin Luther King Jr. called, the "beloved community".  It may  not be the overt racism that was televised in the civil rights attacks in the 1960's, but it still leads to the dehumanization and degradation of those who we perceive to be "the other guys".

22 years after Rodney King asked "Why can"t we all get along", we are still asking that question.  I am worried that my son, and my future grandsons can be stalked, attacked, and killed without any protection from our communities.  I mourn that people refuse to talk about the racial aspect of this trial and I pray that we see this tragedy as an opportunity for dialogue, deeper understanding, and the possibility that we all have some George Zimmerman fear within and all have some Trayvon Martin victimization that is possible.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, "A threat to justice anywhere, is a threat to injustice everywhere".

Take time today to interrogate your own stereotypes about others that are dissimilar.  Pray for our communities that we get beyond that "us-them" mentality and begin to come together for activities in our communities that develop a deeper sense of empathy and a celebratory sense of conviviality.  It is our desire to know others who are different that gives humanity, dignity, and value.

More to follow,

May God bless you,

Pastor M Traylor