Racism continues to distort American society. Race had a hand in Trayvon Martin’s death and in the roots of the law that freed George Zimmerman, the man who shot him.
People who see the connection are weary of it. Protests around the country have made that clear, and Wednesday a group of ministers, United Black Christian Clergy, held a news conference in Seattle to talk about the “gross travesty of justice” and to pray.
Many of the people who spoke at Greater Mt. Baker Baptist Church in Seattle’s Central Area said they were not surprised by the verdict. They’re pained by injustice, but they’ve come to expect it.
The Rev. Steve E. Baber, Sky United Methodist Church, said the nation put an end to Jim Crow, but, “Jim Crow had some grandchildren and some nephews and some nieces that are a lot more subtle.”
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Change has to be the will of the nation, he said, then he pointed out initial resistance to a diversity requirement at the University of Washington, and the suspension of a Seattle Public School class that dealt with race.
Fear of black men grew out of slavery, but it persists partly because so many people can’t or won’t see it. And it gets transmitted in myriad ways, media portrayals, school curricula that dance around the topic, and a million seemingly innocent interactions.
In the 1980s I participated in a diversity-training program. The person leading the session whispered a story into the ear of one participant. It was about a crime that involved a white man and a black man. The facilitator then asked that person to whisper the story to the nearest co-worker.
The story went around the room and when the last person recited it, the black man was the bad guy. The story started out the other way, and the facilitator said it always works out that way, because we are all used to thinking of black men as the bad guys.
Psychological tests show it’s hard for most Americans to associate good traits with black faces. It can be done, but it takes conscious effort.
I have no reason to believe Zimmerman was exceptional. He spotted Trayvon and decided he was up to no good. What were the clues? Skittles? A hoodie?
Then, despite pleading from the police dispatcher that he stay in his car, Zimmerman got out and followed Trayvon, which led to a confrontation and Trayvon’s death.
Participants in the trial were forbidden from mentioning the phrase, racial profiling.
The defense built its case partly on making unarmed Trayvon the scary aggressor, and the jury could believe that because, well, who’s more dangerous, an unarmed black teenager or an armed grown white/Hispanic man?
The law in Florida says it’s OK to kill someone if you just say afterward that you felt threatened. At the Seattle meeting Wednesday, Pastor Lemuel Charleston of Clear Conscience Ministries said, “The only one who stood his ground that night was young Trayvon Martin.”
Why didn’t the prosecution make that case instead of letting the defense put Trayvon on trial?
Why did the judge forbid the use of the phrase, racial profiling, but allow a witness who testified about two black men burglarizing her house? Race definitely played a role in the trial as it did in the events that led to it.
Michael Ramos read a statement from the Church Council of Greater Seattle, which said the council couldn’t be “silent in this circumstance without being complicit in the persistence of racism that has once again manifested itself in our society.” He cited the killing of First Nations woodcarver John Williams in Seattle as an example of the kind of injustice that needs to be fought.
And some of the speakers called for a renewed effort to stop the slaughter of black men by other black men that happens so frequently in cities around the country. Young black men and boys need to be taught that they are better than the images they see in the media. They need to know, whether they are taught it in school or not, that they have value.
Harvey Drake, senior pastor at Emerald City Bible Fellowship asked: “Will Trayvon Martin’s dying be in vain? My hope is that this will have catalytic power to improve or counter the negative images of black men.”
Trayvon Martin wasn’t doing anything wrong when he was stalked and killed. But the thing about racism is that it hurts everyone. There were calls for black folk to come together and create a new movement for empowerment and justice.
“We have been asleep,” the Rev. Victor Langford said, “Trayvon has given us all a wake-up call.”
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday.
Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org