Almost ten years ago, I was a new teacher in a mostly-white, private Christian school. Most of my courses were American literature, but in my youth and zeal, I decided to take on a number of electives. One of the new courses I taught was Speech and Debate. It had been but a year since 9-11 and many of my students wanted to give speeches on issues related to terrorism or war. Knowing this, I decided to have them read an essay that pertained to racial profiling, hoping to round out their understanding of current events. The essay was written by an Arab man, but it was written in the 1980′s at the height of American hijacking fears. All of my students wrestled with the author’s point-of-view, struggling to balance their limited sound-bite-fed knowledge of national security issues against his account of being profiled, an obvious act of injustice. The kids were starting to break down some of their preconceptions about race and privilege and were genuinely open to confronting the derailments that traditionally held them captive in conversations about race.
I was excited and wanted to see more of this. In one of my English courses, I had students read an essay written by a black man on the same topic. He spoke of having to cross the street to avoid walking directly behind a white woman. But, unlike my debate students, these students immediately balked at the author’s account. They called him “paranoid” and insisted that he was making too much of things. One of my students, one of the only black members of his class, turned around and addressed his white classmates. He told them about how his mom encouraged him not to wear hats or hooded jackets in a store. He had been educated to keep a low profile and to maintain a respectful tone in the face of authority figures who would not do him the same courtesy. My students listened and empathized, but there were several who remained skeptical that racial profiling was a persistent problem in America, or even an injustice at all.
When Trayvon Martin was killed, I thought about those two classroom situations. Like many of us, I had a visceral response to the news. The anti-racist in me felt helpless and hopeless in the days that followed. Tope’s post on the subject slayed me. As did Jim Vance’s honest and heartfelt editorial commentary on “The Talk” on our local news. I was reminded of my student’s courage in informing his white peers and I began to hope that perhaps we had arrived at a moment where white folks could “get it” when it came to racial profiling, gun violence, or being a perpetual target.
Call it slacktivism if you will, but I started posting everything I could find on the subject on Facebook. I deliberately chose articles that were well-researched or editorials that provided a clear, truthful, but winsome perspective, hoping that my white friends would join the call for justice in Trayvon’s killing. I even sought out faith-based commentary from a pastor, thinking that would appeal to my white Christian friends who remain ignorant of their privilege. A few friends at church told me that the things I was posting “made me think.” I got a couple compliments from unexpected people about the articles I’d posted. Still, I was doubtful that these ideas were taking root. In the anti-racist fight, even in my own prejudiced heart and mind, it’s often one step forward, two steps back.
It’s been a couple months now, and most of the talk on this topic has slowed in my Facebook news feed. Occasionally, a friend will post something as the case against George Zimmerman moves forward, but there is no longer a frantic flurry of commentary on the case as there was in those early weeks. Just recently, I began to see a new conversation on these topics emerge among some of my friends. Unfortunately, the discussion about race, injustice, vigilantism, etc. has been derailed by two common white complaints:
1) White people are killed and no one makes this big a fuss about it.
I saw this sentiment expressed in conjunction with a blog post about the shooting death of UNC student Eve Carson. The blogger writes:
Was she profiled? You bet she was. Eve was profiled as a Rich, Blue -Eyed, Blond Haired, White Girl. Were there protests, marches and outraged politicians speaking out for her? Did Barack call her family? Why is it about race only if the victim is black? Why aren’t we outraged when ANY kid is murdered? As a nation, have we been silenced by a politically correct whip? Lets’ be outraged about all murders, all racism, every injustice.
Let’s just ignore the mistaken timeline for a minute (Obama took office in 2009 and Eve was killed in March 2008) and focus on the thrust of this post. Eve Carson’s murder garnered national attention. Her killers were brought to justice. At no point has there been any implication that race was a motivating factor in her killing. In fact, her assailants claim they planned to rob her but killed her when she got a good look at them.
Anyone who watches daytime television can tell you that the media and our politicians make a huge fuss about it when a white person is murdered. Even more so if the person is young, female, and attractive by society’s measures. (In that case, the victim is likely to become the center of a Lifetime channel biopic.)
In fact, I’ve rarely seen an Amber alert for a child of color. That’s why organizations like the Black & Missing Foundation even exist: to publicize missing and endangered persons of color because most of the time, the media won’t do it. There is a racial disparity in the way criminals and victims are portrayed in the media.
Eve Carson’s case got the attention of morning shows and talk shows far beyond the scope of local news coverage. Her campus and her town rallied and held vigils. Her killers were apprehended and convicted. There really is no fair comparison to be made between that case and Trayvon’s. If anything, Eve’s story illustrates by contrast how little we collectively care about a murder like Trayvon’s.
That leads me to the other derailment I’ve seen floating around on social networks:
2) White people are now the target of violence because of the case. We are threatened and should be afraid of retaliation.
Richard Land, prominent spokesperson for the Southern Baptist Convention made me glad I’ve left that assembly when he said recently on his radio show of black leaders, “They need the Travyon Martins to continue perpetuating their central myth: America is a racist and an evil nation. For them it’s always Selma Alabama circa 1965.” Land offered a pseudo-apology for his comments in a public letter written to the current SBC president:
Richard Land, who leads the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote to SBC president Bryant Wright to express his “deep regret for any hurt or misunderstanding” his comments may have caused.
“It grieves me to hear that any comments of mine have to any degree set back the cause of racial reconciliation in Southern Baptist or American life,” Land wrote, according to a letter released by Baptist Press, the denomination’s official news agency.
This, as the convention prepares to elect a new president, likely Rev. Fred Luter, who would be the first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Fearful white folks first point to the New Black Panthers’ offer of a bounty for the capture or death of George Zimmerman as evidence that whites are collectively in danger. (The New Black Panther Party is unaffiliated with the Black Panthers). They will mention Spike Lee’s attempt to tweet Zimmerman’s address. Lee apologized for the tweet, having inadvertently tweeted the wrong address, and legally settled the matter with the affected family.
I saw this derailment employed alongside the story of a white Orlando man who was severely beaten by a group of young black men. The family of the victim claims that Matthew Owens was beaten as part of a retaliation for Trayvon Martin’s death. Police investigating the crime reported that the dispute between Owens and his chief assailant has been ongoing, and while racial slurs are hurled by both sides, the beating was in no way related to the Trayvon Martin case.
This derailment is one of many historically used to create fear in white people. Time and again in our history, we have learned about the threat that black men pose. This derailment says, for black folks to see justice, white people will have to pay: reparations, loss of status, even loss of life. As white folks, we cannot acknowledge the wrong in Trayvon’s case, much less right it, because to do so endangers us all.
It also diverts the attention from what was clearly a race-based crime onto other crimes in which white people are the victims. We’re more comfortable with that narrative than we are with a story that allows us to see ourselves in a man holding a gun to a young boy’s head.
As white people, we can continue spinning tales about how people of color are out to get us, coming for our stuff, eager to disrupt our way of life. Or, we can do better, we can do good, and choose to see the injustices that still exist in our country: including the one perpetrated against young Trayvon Martin. We can stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of color, confess the truth about societal structures of sin, and call for justice.