Trayvon and George: Black, White, and Beyond

A Gallup poll shows blacks and whites divided on the George Zimmerman verdict and the reality of a biased judicial system.  Where do these differences come from?  What do we do with them?  What about privilege, dialogue, systemic oppression, future generations…?

Gallup did a survey about a week after George Zimmerman was found not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in the shooting death of the young black man, Trayvon Martin – Gulf Grows in Black-White Views of U.S. Justice System Bias

Gallup reports: “An overwhelming 85% of blacks say the verdict in this case was wrong. A majority of whites (54%), on the other hand, say the verdict was right. Americans overall are divided in their views of the verdict: 43% say it was right and 40% wrong…. These results are almost exactly the opposite of blacks’ and whites’ reactions to the innocent verdict handed down by a Los Angeles jury in the murder trial of O.J. Simpson in 1995. In a survey conducted in October of that year, about two weeks after the verdict, 89% of blacks said the jury had made the right decision, while by a 53% to 36% margin, whites said the jury’s decision was wrong.”

More generally Gallup has found that “While 68% of blacks say the American justice system is biased against blacks, 25% of whites agree. Blacks’ attitudes about the justice system have remained virtually constant over the past 20 years, but whites have become less likely to perceive bias.” Nevertheless, “data from Gallup’s annual Minority Rights and Relations poll — conducted June 13-July 5, before the Zimmerman verdict was announced — show that in a number of instances, blacks have become more positive about the status of race relations in this country”. This “is apparently not the case in terms of whether the justice system in this country is biased against blacks.”

These surveys fascinate me for a number of reasons beyond the obvious racial responses:
1. The mirror-image comparison between responses to the Zimmerman verdict and the O.J. Simpson verdict 18 years later.
2. The fact that millions of Americans – both black and white – disagree with others of their “race”* on these matters.
3. They reflect the fact that a social system can have qualities somewhat independent of the qualities of its members.

Personally, I believe that the overall justice system in the US is biased against black people, especially young black men. That system evolved out of a history that features slavery and war (notably the US Civil War) and all the ills of concentrated power – in other words, a history with a profound level of domination. Domination is grounded in the assumption that we are essentially separate from each other and the world and in a level of fear and selfishness that are natural concomitants of our efforts to survive as separate beings. It is a history that features few efforts to truly heal, to become whole as a society. So the rifts and efforts to dominate, win, and/or protect ourselves – from the power and alienation of the privileged and/or the anger, needs, and alienation of the underprivileged – persist.

Many individual white people today may not have explicit negative beliefs or take any direct negative actions against black people – in other words, they aren’t racist in the bigoted sense. But they still have “white privilege” which includes freedom from – and often obliviousness to – the biases that are built into the systems they live in and often benefit from which are usually established and/or reinforced by people who ARE bigoted. So a system that enables bigots to make life difficult for those they wish to suppress – such as voter ID laws that can SEEM reasonable from outside the history and sociology of racism – can involve non-bigoted people whose privilege shields them from realizing the oppression and their participation in it. It takes extra effort, attention, and loss of comfort for those of us who are privileged to transcend the veils that curse us with comfortable obliviousness.**

So white jury members who are not bigoted but who are oblivious to their privilege can go along with a system that, for example, instructs them to make their decisions within the confines of the “stand your ground” laws, while not having heard arguments for and against those laws in the case they are considering. The racism implicit in that situation can be made visible to white people by talking about the right of black people to stand their ground and use deadly force if they feel threatened by a white person. Once the “stand your ground” laws are envisioned applying in both racial directions, the law’s racism and destructiveness – especially in a society where guns are rapidly spreading in the population – become more apparent to whites. These laws constitute a move into the Wild West, not into healthier, safer communities.

But I realize all this is my own perspective, albeit shared by many other people (in whole or in part). On the other hand, many more millions of people – both “white”, “black” and otherwise – clearly have very different views from mine. And all of us are living in the same society, often in the same neighborhoods, occasionally in the same families. How we deal with our differences is becoming increasingly a matter of life and death.

So I find myself wondering in all this, what is the role of being right, of knowing how morally and factually right we are? What is the role of listening to people very different from ourselves? What is the role of being empathic, of doing the work of truly “getting” what it is like to be a different person? What is the role of bringing very different people together and asking powerful questions that cause them to listen and attend to each other in mind-expanding and heart-opening ways? What is the role of taking action to change systems that oppress certain people? or systems that oppress practically all of us or threaten our grandchildren or the earth? or systems that keep us apart and prevent us from effectively hearing and seeing each other and understanding what’s going on so that we hardly ever work together to create a society that works for all?

What is the bigger meaning of the Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman trial, beyond the obvious, which is so compelling…?

Coheartedly,
Tom

* I put “race” in quotes because it is – especially nowadays – a social category masquerading as a biological category. When the large population whose recent lineage is more white than black are considered “black” – even though many of them “can pass as white” – we know that we’re not talking about biology. We’re talking social identity – that assumed by the individuals involved, that assumed by those around them, and that assumed by the society’s institutions.

** I feel it is important to realize that privilege is not only a matter of being white, male, rich, straight, able-bodied, etc. There are an infinite variety of factors that privilege one person compared to another. Some are more oppressive and/or socially-supported than others. Some are even counter-intuitive. My late partner Karen, for example, realized that her ovarian cancer privileged her in some ways, in that she could use it to get things she wanted from those who were not sick. We talked about it and she sometimes had mischievous fun with it. Privilege is a complex, real, and very important aspect of our social lives to be conscious of and do what we can to reduce its toxicity.

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