A few days ago, I received the worst “what if” I have ever heard.
Playing around with what-ifs is something that you see a lot in journalism. The speculations are usually casual, thought-provoking, but always in good fun. This one was decidedly different.
I was chatting with a professor about the verdict on the Zimmerman trial, and our email exchange revolved around a single question I had for him: was the decision a result of the prosecution’s ineptitude to present proof, or was the jury racially motivated? After some brief thoughts, he closed his response with the following:
Ask yourself this, Tyler: Do you think Zimmerman would have reacted the same way if he’d seen you walking through his neighborhood?
‘Food for thought’ is a little bit of an understatement, no? Keep this in mind while we backtrack a little bit here.
What we had here with this trial was the apparent murder of a young black man by a half-white, half-Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer. Trayvon Martin was unarmed, and George Zimmerman carried an automatic weapon. The prosecution needed to show that Zimmerman had malicious intent in confronting Martin, and the defense needed to show that Martin had only been killed in self-defense—that the young man had instigated the violence himself. At its roots though, this was a murder case.
Sounds strange, does it not? After all, what were the predominant themes in the media during this whole trial? The jury is all female. There are no black people on the jury. Zimmerman was half-white and Martin was African-American.
The questions were worse. Was Zimmerman a racist? Was Trayvon asking for it? Should these neighborhood watch volunteers have guns in the first place?
The real question should be this: Are we not missing something? A young man is dead! The person of Trayvon Martin, amidst all of the race questions and observations, was totally lost, and it was not the first time we saw something like this. Remember the O.J. Simpson trial? Instead of the focus being on the horrible passing of two people, all you heard about were the white folks crying for an outrage and the black folks cheering on “their man” as he attempts to outrace the police. A time of mourning became a time for this inflated racial competition of sorts.
Is this not what we saw again here with Zimmerman? If the man was convicted, it was a victory for blacks, a chance for some sweet justice after so many lifetimes and generations of Rodney Kings and Emmett Tills. This may be largely justified historically, but as we saw in the Simpson trial, there have been times where it was more about beating the white folks and less about seeing justice for the deceased. Of course, in the incidences like the Rodney King beating, the opposite was true for whites—no justice, just an opportunity to show people who was in charge.
Back to the what-if. If George Zimmerman saw me instead of Trayvon Martin, the answer—undoubtedly and assuredly—is that he does not give me a second thought. Instead of rousing suspicion, I am allowed to go home and eat my Skittles and drink my iced tea and live out the rest of my young adult life unconscious of my inadvertent advantages. There is no death, no trial, no rousing national debate. Instead, fate was wicked enough to drop Trayvon Martin at the wrong place at the wrong time, and now we face the consequences of one man’s assumptions—whether he was aware of them or not.
What exactly these consequences entail joins the list of ugly questions that America faces in the wake of this ordeal. It is easy to point at history and say empty things along the lines of, “But look how far we’ve come. But look where we were. But it was so much worse.” But—but—but nothing. We live in a time where homosexuals can marry freely, women regularly head major corporations, and a non-white individual sits in the most powerful position on the planet. A black teenager should be able to walk home and eat his candy in peace. We should be able to observe critical trials without making racial alliances. We should be able to mourn the lives that were lost without any mind toward skin color. In this country, our desire to beat out “the other guys” in the justice system overshadowed the tragic death of a teenager. Sure does not sound progressive to me.
For weeks and weeks now, we heard that we needed justice for Trayvon Martin. Whether you believe the courts gave it to him or not does not matter now. What does matter is that America never gave him justice. Instead, we were blinded by color, and we failed to honor a bright young life or mourn the loss of a hopeful future.
There was never justice for Trayvon Martin, not from us, not from the courts, not from anyone.
We have the capacity to be better than this, but in these racially-sensitive situations, we have not shown it. What happens next is up to us—there is no formula, no instruction manual, no guidelines. It comes down to us being decent people, and remembering the decent people behind all of these tragic stories. We have to remember that this is not about race—it is about people.
Only then can justice truly be served.