When I was a teenager, my dad would constantly fret when I went out with my friends, who tended to be white girls. Dad was always trying to tell me to be careful and like most teens, I didn’t get what he was trying to tell me. I knew he grew up in Jim Crow-era Louisiana, and that he faced a lot of discrimination because he was a black man. In my mind, that was decades ago, and besides, these girls were my friends. I wasn’t planning on harming them and didn’t think people would see me as a threat.
Over the years, it did start to dawn on me that people do see you as a threat. Also over time, a “tape” starts playing in your head. As a black man, heck, if you are black, your head is filled with stories about how the world operates for African Americans, especially African American males. There is talk about learning to be careful and at some level to not really trust others especially white folk. The tape is filled with both recent and long-ago history of how African Americans are treated and every black person is armed with this tape.
Every so often, something happens in the wider culture that starts this tape rolling and it provides context to the a current situation. Now this tape is not a rational process and sometimes it’s wrong. But the tape plays nevertheless and sometimes overrides our rational mind, which can ignore things that don’t fit what the tape is saying.
I think that in the Trayvon Martin case, African Americans are in many ways rushing to judgement about what happened that night between Martin and George Zimmerman. Conservatives have rightly pointed out that it is far more common for an African American to be struck down by another African American than a white man gunning down blacks. But what they miss is how this case taps deep into the psyche of African Americans and therefore posits an emotion-filled response.
There are a few things that makes the “tape” start to play.
Young Black Man vs. White Man. When you look at the photos of the young cherub-faced Martin up against a Zimmerman photo of him in an orange jumpsuit, I think it immediately causes a visceral response in blacks. It reminds them of cases like Emmett Till. In the 1950s where a young black boy from Chicago was in Mississippi visiting relatives and was killed by white men because he whistled at a white woman. Yes, 1955 Mississippi is not 2012 Florida, but like I said, this isn’t rational, it’s emotional and the juxtaposition of an African American teenager and a white man provokes reactions. And yes, Zimmerman is part Hispanic, but in the minds of African Americans, that doesn’t factor in. The tape says black vs. white and that is what many will follow.
The Police. Let’s face it: black folks get nervous around the cops even if they haven’t done anything- I know I do. We’ve had a long history of not-s0-good relations with the police and the actions or inactions of the Sanford, FL Police brings up that emotional history. I do wonder why they didn’t arrest Zimmerman following the shooting and we will probably find out why in the coming days or weeks. It might have been simple incompetence or the law wasn’t clear. But even if there are legitimate reasons, the image of not arresting a white man for killing a black teenager looks bad, really bad to blacks. Again, it’s the history of how blacks have been treated by the police and the law and how whites sometimes got away with murder quite literally. I’m not saying that we should arrest Zimmerman immediately, specific charge or not, but I am saying that is part of the angry demands to arrest Zimmerman stem from past history and the emotions that spring from that history.
Welcome to the South. African Americans have a love/hate relationship with the American South. On the one hand, it’s seen as our ancestral home and many of us still have a relative or two living “down South.” The most recent census data shows blacks are moving back to the South after decades away in Northern cities.
On the other hand, it’s also a place where we have a not-so-good history. There was that whole hey-let’s-treat-black-people-like-property thing, and then after the end of slavery there was yet another century of second-class status under Jim Crow. If Trayvon had been killed in the North, part of me thinks it wouldn’t have the emotional pull that it does taking place in Florida. And yes, even though it doesn’t act like it at times, Florida is in the South.
Rod Dreher wrote how experiences can cloud our judgement. This is what he said in regard to a case of abuse in his life and how it related to the Penn State scandal where an associate of longtime coach Joe Paterno was sexually abusing young boys:
I think about how completely outraged I was last year over the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State. How volcanically disgusted I was at how Penn State students rioted in anger over the way the university treated Joe Paterno. How frustrated I was over the culture of denial at Penn State that appears to have allowed Sandusky to sexually prey on boys for years. With some distance from that time, I think about all the emotions that case brought forth from within me — emotions that had to do with what I regard as the worst trauma I’ve ever gone through — and how it became virtually impossible for me to consider that any of the major figures from that case might not be guilty. That red-headed coach in particular, Mike McQueary. I was ready to be judge, jury, and executioner on that guy, and I couldn’t see how anybody could see this matter differently. Wasn’t the truth obvious? If you doubted it, I was emotionally certain that you were blinded by your loyalty to Penn State.
That was wrong of me. McQueary may eventually be proven in court to be guilty of some criminal charge, or may be at least shown to have been a man of no moral integrity. But I didn’t know that at the time, and I still do not know that. The truth was, I judged McQueary guilty because the facts, as presented in the grand jury report, did not reflect at all well on him, and — more importantly — the facts fit a template that I carried in my head about how institutions allow children to be sexually abused to protect their public image and the powerful, well-connected people within the leadership of those institutions. Obviously, this was a big lesson I took from my experience of the Catholic abuse scandal, and it was a lesson I took from the two adult chaperones who walked out of a hotel room when I was 14, and a group of boys were trying to take my pants off to humiliate me in front of their girlfriends. Me begging the adults for help. Them stepping over me and leaving the room rather than confront the cool kids. That was my template. It’s why I reacted so strongly to the Catholic scandal that I could no longer say I believed in my Catholic faith. It cut too deep. It’s also why I would not be able to serve on a jury in a child sexual abuse case. I am, I think, incapable of being impartial in these matters, despite my best efforts. I feel so strongly about this stuff that even when I think I’m being impartial, I’m not. I didn’t see clearly how much emotion affected my judgment about Mike McQueary until after enough time had passed to let the emotions die down. I am absolutely certain that the same dynamic is at work in the Trayvon Martin case.
We like to think that we are rational beings that can make decisions regardless of our emotions. In reality, we are very emotional beings that for good or for ill can have their judgement clouded by overwhelming memories, be it a communal historical memory or an individual one.
For a number of reasons, the Trayvon Martin case has revealed a deep wound in the African American psyche and it’s going to take a long time for it to heal.
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