I suppose you’ve heard the news? What’s his name, the man who killed Trayvon Martin, has been acquitted. Predictably, certain people are calling foul. Maybe it’s just that I haven’t been following the courtroom drama minutia, but I suspect their outrage has less to do with Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence individually, and more to do with the fact that, had he been found guilty, it would have proven that a white man could be convicted of killing a black boy for racist reasons. Since he has been acquitted, the jury must remain out on society at large.
Obviously, I’m white. I’m also politically naïve; I was raised by white liberals, among the children of other white liberals, and we were educated by white liberals (I was about to specify my childhood education, because I’m talking about my formative experiences, but I just realized I’ve only ever had two non-white teachers, a black woman and a Chinese-American woman, both in high school. At both levels, all my college professors were white). I was taught to abhor racism, but I was not taught to notice it. I knew very few black people. About the only think I know about racial politics and the American black experience of it is that I know nothing. Therefore, while I don’t tend to seek the subject out, when something written by a black person on race passes my gaze I stop and pay attention.
For this reason, I read an article in The Sun this past week, written by a man named Ross Gay who is apparently a college professor, a hobbyist bee keeper and gardener, and a black man. He writes movingly about being stopped by police for some debatably legitimate and thoroughly minor reason (his license plate light was out) and treated like a suspected criminal. He was asked whether he had drugs or guns in the car, whether he had been drinking, etc. Later, his friends told him he was lucky the cop hadn’t searched the car, “tossed” it and left him to clean up the mess. He writes of being embarrassed by how minor the intrusion really was, in comparison to what happens regularly to other black men, embarrassed by the fear that took hold of his body and later spasmed his muscles, physically immobilizing him as he bent to harvest garlic in his garden the following day.
This man is a teacher. I have a bit of a thing about teachers, as you may have noticed; I have always believed them to be people inherently worthy of a great deal of respect. They were my allies when I was small, when I was a little geek of a girl who didn’t fit in anywhere. If a teacher is to be treated as a criminal, there’d better be a damn good reason, and turning up with a license plate out does not qualify. I think that’s what angers me the most about Ross Gay’s story—not simply that the cop ignored Gay’s humanity in favor of his race but that even the elevated social status the man had earned did not prevent him from being treated like a second-class citizen, like no citizen at all.
But, of course, as Gay points out in his article, there is no way to prove that the intimidation attempt, for that’s what it was (just asking “do you have drugs?” is a nonsensical way to screen for criminal activity) was racially motivated.
Just as the cop didn’t say, “Since you appear to be of some African extraction,
I would like to ask if you have any drugs or weapons in the car.” He just asked
I had any drugs or weapons in the car.
Gay was writing about his experiences as a black man in order to write about mercy, in order to expose some societal hurt, to lay hands upon it, to be honest and brave and kind. I really like his article, and I suggest you read it—there is an awesome passage about bees near the end, too. The magazine is for sale at the Co-Op, if you want to check it out. It’s the July issue. But however much I really like that article, today I’m not interested in writing about mercy. I’m interested in writing about guilt.
Because there was no way to prove that Trayvon Martin’s death was racially motivated, either. Zimmerman apparently used no racial epithets in describing Trayvon, either when speaking to the dispatcher that night or in his subsequent testimony. He never said “I’m scared of this boy because he is black, so I’m going to shoot him.” He just shot him. Whether the bar on the definition of self-defense might be too low, whether Florida has somehow reached a point where people can be legally shot because other people are simply frightened, is another, equally worthy, topic, but the debate apparently centered, not on whether Trayvon was shot because he was dangerous, but whether he was shot for being black. And there is no way to know, unless someone has a legally admissible recording of Zimmerman saying so, which apparently nobody does.
And it is true that sometimes white people find other white people unaccountably scary. It is even true that sometimes teenagers, of any race, are in fact genuinely threatening. Maybe Trayvon would have died even if he had been white. Maybe Zimmerman actually did shoot in legitimate self-defense. It’s worth pointing out that it’s hard to imagine that shooting an unarmed teenager could have prevented a crime worse than the actual tragedy that took place. But there is no way to prove, in isolation, whether Zimmerman did anything unfair.
Because this sort of thing only really shows up in the aggregate. As Gay points out, eighty percent of the people stopped in New York’s stop-and-frisk program are black or Latino. New York’s population as a whole is only fifty percent black or Latino. Is this disparity more than what we would expect by chance? Can we reject the null hypothesis that New York’s finest are fair? I don’t know, you tell me. But I do remember that’s the right question to ask. And I have a definite hunch as to the answer.
But statistics can’t say whether any individual police or vigilante action is unfair. Flip a coin nineteen times and get nineteen heads and you might begin to suspect the coin is rigged, but flip it a twentieth time and you can’t say the resulting head couldn’t have happened anyway because the chance of any individual coin toss coming up heads is still always fifty-fifty.
And what if statistics aren’t even available? What if Gay had been white, and part of no other definable, disenfranchised group, and had still been treated like a criminal? Would that have meant the situation was fair? No, because sometimes even white guys are treated badly. Maybe he’d had an argument with the cop earlier that day. Maybe he’d gotten involved in some kind of unrelated political issue. Maybe someone he’d inadvertently pissed off along the way had bad-mouthed him and the cop had heard, believed it, and acted legitimately based on an accusation that was itself illegitimate? All these things are possible. And yet, you confront the cop with your questions and the cop would say “I don’t know what you’re talking about. The man had a busted license-plate light. I ask everybody I stop about possible illegal activity. What’s your problem?”
Claiming the rhetorical high ground, defining the situation before the other guy can, may be the only recourse. If there is no way to prove what you know, that the boy in the hoody with the Skiddles, that the college professor heading home to tend his bees, is innocent and got a rather bad deal, then maybe the only recourse is to act on what you know and cannot prove. This is, in fact, what Trayvon’s supporters have been doing. It is how they got Zimmerman to trial in the first place, whether or not the trial itself was fair. A generation or two ago, even that would not have happened.
This tactic carries a risk, the risk of its own kind of unfairness. As some people have pointed out, Zimmerman might not have been tried at all had he, too, been black. That may be true, I don’t know. I am, as I said, naïve. I’m hesitant to speak up even this far, for fear I’ll say something accidentally stupid or offensive. As regards the politics of this topic, I really don’t know what I’m doing. But I do understand fairness as a general principle, and I say that as a general principle the burden of proof should always be laid at the feet of whoever it is had the gun.
Because Trayvon Martin is dead. His friends and family will never see him again, and any good that he could have spent his time doing while he was here will not now be done. Rightly or wrongly, that is what Zimmerman did. He should have to account for himself. If there were a way to somehow make Trayvon not dead, that would be ideal, but, failing that, there should be a way to make sure this doesn’t happen again—even if there is no way to be sure that “this” happened this time to begin with. And maybe the best way to do that is to make sure that any time anyone with power acts against someone of lesser power, even when the other had his own resources and might possibly have offered some kind of genuine threat, that other people ask “why.”
And do not stop asking “why.”
The phoebes on the porch have hatched; three or four little fuzzy heads, three or four raspy little voices. They don’t know or care about any of this.