So, George Zimmerman was scared the night he shot Trayvon Martin through the heart. Know who else was probably pretty scared that night? Trayvon Martin.
By MELVINA JOHNSON YOUNG
Special to The Star
Surprised Im asking? Me too. But it seems like a lot of people havent thought much about that.
Obviously, Trayvon isnt here to tell us how he felt. Hes dead. And a lot of folks disregarded Rachel Jeantels account of him being afraid even though she was the last person to hear Trayvon speak (besides Zimmerman). She heard his fear through the phone. She heard him try to run away. He was scared.
And yet theres a disturbing silence in public discussion about it.
What in the hell is going on?
Why is it so hard to imagine that a teenager walking home at night would be afraid if a strange, angry-looking guy started following him? A bigger, older, guy in a truck.
Why is it so hard for some people to understand his fear escalating when the angry guy got out of the truck and confronted him? Why is it so hard to imagine how his fear must have rocketed skyward when the angry guy brandished his gun? (Of course, he brandished it or showed it somehow. How else would Trayvon even know it was there on a dark and rainy night?)
Why cant we put ourselves or our children in Trayvon Martins tennis shoes? Because Zimmerman was what every parent regardless of race in America warns a child about, stranger danger with a gun.
So how come half the country identifies with Zimmerman? Why cant we universally empathize with a scared kid who was being followed by an armed stranger?
Because the racial trigger got tripped, minds went dark and hearts followed.
A 17-year-old kid whod experimented a little with marijuana (which as far as I know never caused anyone to go into any bath salts-type rage) and had been sent to his father for getting into trouble in school (like a lot of average good kids do) was suddenly turned into a gangsta thug by right wing media and certain average Americans.
Because he was wearing a hoodie on a rainy night.
He was also wearing skinny jeans, the pant choice of college and high school hipsters everywhere. To anyone who didnt already have his mind made up, the kid looked straight up out the GAP not straight up out the hood.
But still a lot of people see a hooded threat. Just like George Zimmerman. And theyre not even in the heat of the moment.
Is it really because Trayvon had flirted with the masculine poses of hip hop culture the way American boys black, white, brown and Asian do every single day? Was it because hed been caught experimenting casually with weed (obviously against his parents example or wishes)? Or is it because we (the collective we) just cant imagine black men and boys as vulnerable enough to feel fear like any one of us would feel fear?
We cant see black men and boys as whole and real people with emotions beyond anger and Im going to hurt you. No matter how accomplished black male professionals are, how sensitive black male teachers and other helpers are, how expressive black male artists are, how dutiful and brave black male soldiers are we cant see it.
Whether its because of the projection of hyper-masculinity, hyper-sexuality and hyper-physicality of hip hop culture, the sports world, the street corner or the evening news the message from our culture is Black men may bleed, but they dont cry.
Thats one reason some people had so much trouble believing that it was Trayvon making those heart-crumbling screams for help on that 911 call. Because weve been led to believe that black men and boys dont cry out in fear not even during a fight in which they are outweighed and outgunned.
Some people cant believe those pitiful screams were those of a frightened child even though the screams ended the second the gunshot sounded. And never resumed.
This could tempt me to believe that the fear of black men (and women) in America is so complete that a black kid can die with candy in his hand and still be presumed a threat.
But I cant go there just yet. Because you know what else killed empathy for Trayvon? Stuff. Yeah. As in property.
George Zimmerman was following this child because Zimmerman was mad and afraid about some recent break-ins that had been reported. (No. It apparently doesnt matter that Trayvon had nothing do with those break-ins.)
Zimmerman was afraid that Trayvon might mess with somebodys stuff. But, by Zimmermans own admission, when Zimmerman confronted Trayvon the kid wasnt breaking into anything or leaving somebodys house with a TV in his arms. Trayvon was just walking, holding his candy and being young and black all at the same time.
But that was enough to set Zimmerman off. And you know what? A lot of people understand. Because a lot of people in this country are entirely too comfortable with the idea of shooting people over property. Even property thats not in any danger of being taken.
We tell ourselves in our politics and within the circle of our communities and families that life is precious. And we mean that. Just not more precious than property. Thats apparent given the spread of Stand Your Ground and Castle Doctrine laws all across this country.
So its OK with a lot of people that Zimmerman chased down an unarmed black boy in a gated community the safest place in America because he feared the kid was going to do something to somebodys stuff. Trayvons life was put on the scale against potential property theft and weighed considerably less.
Yes. I know. Zimmerman claims that he left Trayvon alone, but Trayvon came back and attacked him from behind. (Nothing about that makes any sense. But lets continue). Zimmerman got scared and pulled the trigger. Then he moved Trayvons body, disturbing evidence at the scene. All safe again in the gated community except for Trayvon.
Rather than empathize with a kid fleeing stranger danger theres been a reflexive defense of Zimmerman that evinces an I understand. I would have felt the same way if Id seen a black kid in a hoodie attitude among a good portion of the population. But thats not racist, they argue. And they damn near celebrated because Zimmerman is Hispanic and cant be racist. Even better Zimmerman clears other people (white people) who share his attitude as un-racist, too.
Well, dont let this get out to the ones trumpeting Zimmermans race as Hispanic but some Hispanics are white. Even the ones who arent white can and do absorb the dominant cultures attitudes towards black men and boys as do even some African Americans who are not exempt from automatically judging all black men by what another does.
This is something we all must wrestle with. I suspect in direct proportion to our real life exposure to black men as opposed to media imagery, political distortion and cultural misunderstanding.
None of us is perfect or blame-free when it comes to bias. Its the wrestling with it, the taking responsibility for our biases that matters. That prevents those biases from embedding and spreading and costing somebody something dear. Like his life.
That wrestling with it is how weve made enough progress so that an entire generation of American children now see racism as inherently wrong.
Of course, that progress can all be reversed. Tolerance and compassion for one another can be unlearned.
The right wing, particularly FOX News, has made a cottage industry of trivializing efforts to dismantle racial distortions and racism. Theyve reduced it to some sort of PC Performance rather than the work of making human equality happen building the skills to see another persons humanity across the very real divides of race and cultural difference.
They talk about Dr. King a lot for people who essentially see Kings lifes work building common understanding as no longer necessary.
Ask me? Its a bit like declaring you no longer need the airplane when youre in mid-air.
Oh, Im sure there are lots of other things that keep people from sympathizing with another person. But when were in such a politically and racially polarized place that we cant replace Trayvon Martins face with our own or that of our own child we are in a dark place indeed.
Melvina Johnson Young, of the Kansas City area, is a former university lecturer specializing in United States history, womens history and African-American history and cultural studies. She was a 2008 Midwest Voices panel writer.