American Racism Past and Present

American Racism Past and PresentMany years ago, I got into a conversation about Thomas Jefferson over dinner with a man I had just started dating. Turns out we were both reading Jefferson biographies. It didn’t take long to reach a point in the discussion where it was clear our racial backgrounds were leading us to a fork in the road of sorts – we certainly held different opinions on Jefferson. Ultimately, our discussion took a turn that made me decide this would be our last date.

When talking about race — or specifically about racism — it’s difficult to bridge the gap in understanding that exists between whites and blacks. It’s not impossible but all too often our vastly different experiences lead us to draw conclusions that are hard to reconcile and even harder to dismantle.

It’s been my experience that trying to bridge this gulf frequently leads to a type of dialog that I can only characterize as “talking past each other.” And although we each may have a deep and abiding desire to understand and be understood – it takes time, a real commitment, and still it can be hard as hell to accomplish.

The best way to shed light on what I’ve experienced, I believe, is to use an analogy.

A couple of years ago a story broke that grabbed the nation’s heart. Two U.C. Berkeley police officers met with a man who was inquiring about using the Berkeley campus facility to put on an event. The man brought along his two young daughters. Something about the girls’ demeanor and overall appearance led the officers to be suspicious. The police did a little checking and discovered that the man was Phillip Garrido, a convicted kidnapper and sex offender.

The campus police took action. Their actions led to the arrest of Garrido, who had kidnapped Jaycee Lee Dugard and held her captive for 18 years. From the tender age of 11, Jaycee Lee Dugard had been locked up in a shed in Garrido’s backyard where she was routinely raped and abused by Garrido. For almost two-thirds of her life, she was his prisoner and sex slave, giving birth to the two girls Garrido brought with him to Berkeley that day.

Diane Sawyer and Jaycee Lee Dugard

Diane Sawyer and Jaycee Lee Dugard

Because of the actions of those U.C. Berkeley police officers, the nation learned of the horror this beautiful little girl experienced for 18 years – often just feet away from adults who could have and should have protected her or, at the very least, rescued her had they done their jobs with any degree of competence. We watched and read about the number of times this convicted rapist and kidnapper opened his home to parole officers and other authorities, all the while little Jaycee was locked up in a shed in the backyard just feet away.

ABC News reported that two decades of failures by three separate governmental entities were at the heart of this story: the United States Parole Commission, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and the local Contra Costa Sheriff’s office.

I watched Diane Sawyer of ABC News interview Jaycee Lee Dugard all the while thinking, “How could this have happened?” I doubt there is a sane person in America who wasn’t horrified when hearing this story. I doubt there is a sane person in America whose heart doesn’t go out to Jaycee’s mother. And I doubt there is a sane person in America who wasn’t overjoyed when Jaycee Lee Dugard finally came home.

What we learned, when we look at this tragedy, is that our systems failed. In fact, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the systems were Phillip Garrido’s accomplice, along with his wife Nancy. But for a network of failed systems, like the ones that existed during those 18 grueling years, Jaycee Lee Dugard would not have had to endure those horrors.

I tell this story because as I sat misty eyed watching the Diane Sawyer piece with mixed feelings of happiness and disgust – happiness as I watched this incredibly strong young woman, Jaycee Dugard, tell her story and complete disgust hearing what she endured. I also felt a tinge of sadness for a nation that doesn’t seem to have the capacity to experience the same level of horror, outrage or even regret when equally terrible things happen to children or people who don’t look like Jaycee Lee Dugard.

A term coined about a decade ago, “Missing white woman syndrome (MWWS),” comes to mind. According to Wikipedia, MWWS is “a vernacular term for the alleged disproportionately greater degree of coverage in television, radio, newspaper and magazine reporting of a misfortune, most often a missing person case, involving a young, attractive, white, middle-class (or above) woman, compared with cases concerning a missing male, or missing persons of other ethnicities or economic classes.” There are great many cases I can cite that illustrate this point but in the interest of brevity I’ll list a couple.

  • American Racism Past and Present

    Sherrice Iverson and JonBenet Ramsey

    Sherrice IversonSherrice Iverson was a 7-year-old black girl who went into a public restroom at a casino in Nevada. She was sexually molested and murdered in that restroom by an adult male while his companion stood watch at the bathroom entrance. The story of this child’s sexual molestation and murder got scant coverage compared with another tragic story that happened at about the same time – JonBenet Ramsey.

  • LaToyia Figueroa – LaToyia Figueroa was a young black Latina who went missing when she was five months pregnant. LaToyia was later found, murdered by the father of her unborn child. LaToyia Figueroa’s story was barely a footnote in the local news. But a similar story — one just as horrific — the Laci Peterson story dominated the national print media and  airwaves for months.

In a rare departure from the norm, the Los Angeles Times published an article on the disparate coverage given to missing or murdered women and children of color. Quoting University of Southern California Professor Todd Boyd , the article said, “I don’t think a media director is sitting around saying, ‘Hey, there’s this black woman in Philadelphia and she disappeared and we don’t care…’ ” Said Boyd, “It’s an unconscious decision about who matters and who doesn’t. In general, there is an assumption that crime is such a part of black and Latino culture, that these things happen all the time. In many people’s minds it’s regarded as being commonplace and not that big a deal.”

I can’t imagine that it’s not that big a deal to the victim. But perhaps Boyd is shedding light on what’s at the heart of what I see as America’s lack of empathy or what Dr. Martin Luther King frequently referred to as indifference to the suffering of others.

But let me get back to the night I broke up with the guy who loved Thomas Jefferson and why that story is relevant here.

As you might have guessed, the man I broke up with is white. I am black. I listened that evening as he extolled the life’s work of Jefferson and the other founding fathers – his adulation barely containable. I’d always found it curious when people who have actually studied history continue to hold Jefferson in such high esteem. I asked how he could revere a man who well into adulthood and during his early career condemned slavery, took affirmative steps to end it – yet abruptly changed his tune and then over the remainder of his life held more than 650 humans captive, exploiting them for labor and sex – as in the well-documented case of Sally Hemings who he began having sex with when she was 14.

My dinner companion brushed my comment aside as though it were meaningless. Contending that I could not judge Jefferson through a contemporary lens, he insisted that Jefferson’s behavior was well within the norm for that era and that Jefferson’s greatness should be judged on that basis.

What my date didn’t understand was that I wasn’t judging Jefferson – I was taking a good long look at him — my date — or more specifically his exuberant reverence for a man who committed atrocities that by today’s standards would be abominable. Or are they?

That was the question that led me to end the date and the budding relationship that night. But over the years, I’ve thought about that conversation more times than I can count. A century and a half ago, what was conveniently deemed “normative behavior” – keeping humans in bondage, often torturing  and exploiting them for sex and labor — is today an abomination. I began to wonder what people of the future will see as abominable in 150 years when they look back in history at the world we live in today.

So, now I’ll jump back to the Jaycee Dugard story. That story broke many years after the debate I had about Thomas Jefferson but, as I said, over the years I often thought of that conversation so naturally I began to make connections. What I experienced when I learned of Dugard’s 18 years of hell was empathy. And this is where I suspect there is major gap in many of the discussions around race in this country.

American Racism Past and Present

Tracy Martin, Sybrina Fulton, and Trayvon Martin

Before I end, I want to stress that I, in no way, believe that all whites are unempathetic towards the plight of blacks in America. But I do believe this country has systematically minimized or sanitized the reality of being black in America in ways that lead those who do not have meaningful connections with blacks to be out of touch often believing they have an understanding of what it means to be black based on the depictions they’ve seen in the media.

To highlight what I’ve characterized as an empathy deficit, I’ve created a few scenarios using the Jaycee Dugard story with the hope that my message will be made clearer.

Scenario 1:    Over the years, several movies are released about the Jaycee Lee Dugard story but in each, the plot’s focus is Campbell and Jacobs not Jaycee. Who are Campbell and Jacobs you ask? They are the U.C. Berkeley police officers. — Wouldn’t this seem odd? But this is just what I often see when I go to see a civil rights era movie — the lead and focus of the story is frequently a white hero. This has become such a norm that it is often unnoticed– think “The Help,” “Mississippi Burning,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “A Dry White Season,” “A Time to Kill.”

Scenario 2:   Wouldn’t it be strange if Phillip Garrido were found not guilty and never served a day behind bars even after admitting that he committed the crimes.  — How many of you know that at least one of the murderers of Emmett Till sold his story to Look Magazine, admitting — even bragging he had done the heinous acts. And he was paid for the story so he benefitted financially.

Scenario 3:  How about if shortly after Jaycee Dugard was found, the media began to report that she had gotten a D on her report card the month before she “encountered” Garrido.  — The nation would be in an uproar over that kind of non sequitur. But isn’t that what is frequently done when the victim is a black boy.  In the case of Trayvon Martin, a judge found that Martin’s grades would be allowed into evidence in the Zimmerman case.

Scenario 4:  What would people think if Garrido’s home with the shed still intact in the backyard became a national monument — a place the nation holds up as a thing to be proud of.  — Unthinkable right? But Mt. Vernon, Monticello and other national monuments have just this kind of disgraceful treatment of humans on display not as something to disdain but as a depiction of normal life back then — not a bit of shame in the game. I recently visited George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in Virginia. The estate has been preserved reflecting its original appearance, including the slave quarters where over 300 people were held in bondage, forced to work without compensation from dawn to dusk, and then tortured if they tried to escape or “misbehaved” in some other fashion.

Scenario 5:  How about if talking heads began to question why people are up in arms about a single case of kidnap, rape, and pedophilia when the real issue, is white-on-white crime, which represents approximately 86% of all crime experienced by whites. — Wouldn’t this seem bizarre? What the heck does white-on-white crime have to do with what happened to this poor girl. But wasn’t this the focus of mainstream media when the Trayvon Martin case was in the news? In what I interpret as an attempt to minimize the racial component of the Martin case, George Will of ABC said of the case, “about 150 black men are killed in the country every week and 95% are killed by other black men”. He neglected to mention that in the vast majority of all murders in this country, the victim and the assailant are of the same race or ethnicity — this is true for blacks, whites, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Pacific Islanders etc. But do we ever hear about white-on-white crime?

Scenario 6:  What if this case was cracked, but instead of Garrido being arrested, Jaycee Lee Dugard was arrested!! And to make bad matters worse, there was no media coverage because the powers that be didn’t find the story “newsworthy” — They claimed Jaycee Lee just wasn’t a sympathetic victim.  — I doubt America could wrap its head around that but this is exactly the kind of treatment young girls receive in cities across the United States every day.  I’m talking about children who are held as sex slaves. According to the FBI, most of these children are black girls. Most are brutalized, held against their will, raped and forced into years of sexual servitude – some are as young as 10 yrs old. The media knows about this but rarely reports this story. The FBI released a report in 2004 stating that black children make up 55 percent of all prostitution-related arrests in the U.S.  Instead of being rescued, these children are being arrested.

sharon kyle

Sharon Kyle

In an attempt to bridge the gap that I talked about earlier in this piece I created these scenarios — the chasm that exists between the black and white American experience has as much to do with perspective as anything. If this was helpful to you, please share it. I wish I could be more optimist but I suspect it’ll take another 150 years before we can look at current conditions like those that exist within the prison industrial complex or the economic inequality that runs along racial lines and be able to see the gross injustices in our “justice” system.  What will our grandchildrens’ grandchildren think when they look back to 2013 in their history books? Somehow I think they will be as appalled as I am when I look back 150 years.


Sharon Kyle
Publisher, LA Progressie


  1. libertarians are racist says

    Thomas Jefferson was a racist and a elitist. He was for property rights because for his own personal gain to inslave the blackman to make profits.

  2. Val Eisman says

    While the examples of how missing children of color are underplayed versus white children is correct, it is not the foremost example of racism in our society today. The foremost example is that white liberal America has stood by while schools predominantly serving children of color have become segregated once again and children of color primarily suffer from underfunded schools with poor children. Jonathan Kozol has written about this in his latest book on how once again we have an aparheid system of education in America. Hence, it can only follow that children of color don’t count when they disappear if they don’t count as citizens to be educated.

    And secondly, the long term unemployment rate that has existed for decades in the inner cities of America along with a failed welfare versus public jobs program which has decimated the black family in the inner cities also rates IMO far more attention than Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson is a subject for people not coping with the daily travails of life in the apartheid cities of America. It is a subject for people who don’t have to live in neighborhoods that have become warzones with hundreds of deaths yearly.

    You are talking around the edges of the larger problem which is the failure of liberalism in America. There are presently 18.5 million vacant homes in America. Is Thomas Jefferson really that important anymore?

  3. Claudia Alexander says

    Even in Jefferson’s day he was regarded as somewhat of a weirdo by his contemporaries, not only because of his relationship with Sally Hemmings, but because so many of his house slaves looked exactly like him. His New England contemporaries though it incongruous, and you can check John Adams’ writings for that. When he went to Paris many of his fellow diplomats found it strange that he could talk freedom but not walk the walk.  All of this is part of the public record about contemporary feelings about Jefferson, and anyone who really studied Jefferson would know that. His contemporaries even laughed because he wrote this defense of the differences between the ‘races’ using dubious science even for that time. See Documents on American Prejudice from Thomas Jefferson to David Duke. But, like the characters in the movie The Sixth Sense, sometimes white Americans hear what they want to hear about Jefferson. That’s why the wonderful Merchant/Ivory movie about him: Jefferson in Paris, received such a luke-warm response in the US.

  4. Reggie Brown says

    Thank you for a well written, insightful synopsis. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Trayvon Martin tragedy, and why so many people are polarized on this incident. I think it has to do partly with racial bias, but also because people tend to view situations with their own particular lens, and that perspective can be experientially based. Obviously the media is invested in keeping issues polarized so they can sell more, well, polarizing media. Many of us have been inundated with conflicting accounts and analysis. When I first saw Trayvon’s picture, I thought, “How could anyone kill that sweet kid.” Then I heard that he was in his mid teens and over six feet tall, and I realized the picture supplied by the family made him look about 13. The original picture of Zimmerman made him look like a vicious thug. But other pictures of him have surfaced and he looks like a friendly neighbor. Then there are the conflicting statements by witnesses about the actual event. The Miami Heat put out a picture of the players in hoodies, and I realized that if I saw a big guy on the street with his face half hidden by a hood, I’d have a gut reaction of fear, or at least heightened awareness, whether he was black or white. We live in a world where people hurt each other frequently, sometimes just to steal something from them. I was fishing the other day and saw a guy in a hood and a ball cap hovering near my gear and spare pole, and I had the same reaction: watch out, he looks like he’s casing my equipment to steal something. He was white. It made me think Zimmerman’s story could be plausible. Maybe he actually was following Martin because he saw him casing the neighborhood. Not that he should have had a gun with him, or that he should have gotten close, or that he was or wasn’t racist, but that sometimes we make assessments that are not just assumptions. They’re based on someone’s actions as well as their looks. What would I have done if I saw someone I thought was casing the neighborhood? White or black, I probably would have followed him, albeit at a safe distance.

     How about if shortly after Dugard was found, the media began to report that she had gotten a D on her report card the month before she encountered Garrido.  — This would never happen in this kind of case but in the case of Trayvon Martin, attempts to smear that child’s reputation were widely reported.

    Getting a D is just not the same as getting kicked out of school. One suspension from school might be a mistake; three times indicates a serious problem. Is it smearing his reputation if people hear that he got into trouble? Or does it speak to his character and help people make sense of this tragedy? If he was suspended from school, if he actually looked different from the younger Trayvon picture flashed on TV and news articles for weeks, is it possible he may be quite different from how he’s been portrayed? Is it possible that he was an angry young man who reacted to someone acting like he thought he was casing the neighborhood. Maybe he WAS casing the neighborhood. Maybe Trayvon was a great kid, or maybe he was a punk gangbanger wannabe who went back to beat up the guy who had the nerve to follow him. We don’t know yet. Maybe we’ll never know the truth. But what we have heard so far are statements like, “It’s not safe for an African-American kid to go to the store, he might get killed.” Is that the correct message? Or should we be seeking the truth so we can tell our kids how to avoid getting hurt. I’d like to think my that if my kid was looking at someone else’s house and a stranger followed him, he’d either run away or speak up, uncover his face and say, “Hi, can I help you with something? I’m new here or I’m visiting my dad over on such and such street.” Maybe the message should be that you can deescalate a situation if someone misinterprets your behavior. If Trayvon Martin had anything to do with the altercation, if it’s true that he came back and punched Zimmerman and smashed his skull against the sidewalk, then the message to other children shouldn’t be “Don’t go to the store,” it should be “Don’t be an aggressive jerk, because the other guy might have a gun.”
    I’m not trying to blame the victim here, because we don’t know yet what actually transpired that night. But making this something that it’s not doesn’t help the situation. Let’s wait until we actually know what happened. And if it turns out that Trayvon Martin was the instigator of the physical conflict that made Zimmerman shoot him in self defense, then let’s let this example go and refocus on those kids who really were just innocent victims. The Sherrice Iverson and LaToyia Figueroa types of crimes need our attention more.

    • says

      Regardless of your intent, you are blaming the victim. Even if Trayvon Martin was a punk gangbanger wannabe he didn’t deserve to be killed. When people commit crimes in this country, they get a trial and a sentence imposed by a court of law,not shot on the street by some cop wannabe member of a neighborhood watch group. 

      Funny that so many people appear to think that we are to  simply accept Zimmerman’s word that he killed Trayvon in self defense. It may have been self defense but it is an affirmative defense to charges of murder and has to be proven. 

      What difference does it make that Trayvon was suspended from school more than once? Last time that I checked, being suspended fro school was not an offense that merited the death penalty. 

      Why should black kids have to watch what they wear when they walk down the street? Are you saying that black young men have to prove that they are not deserving of being shot? What kind of nonsense is that? You can’t shoot someone because you think that person looks suspicious. It’s just that simple. You cannot target someone as suspicious based on your gut feeling. The whole purpose of these neighborhood watch groups is to call law enforcement when they see something that makes them suspect a person may be up to no good. That’s it. No confronting anyone, no tracking someone, just contact the police and let them handle it. If Zimmerman had done that Trayvon Martin would still be alive. Zimmerman also could have avoided possibly putting his own life in danger. What if Trayvon had also been armed?

      How would you feel if your child were followed by some stranger on a dark street? Would you advise your child to simply answer any questions posed by this stranger? How was Trayvon supposed to know that Zimmerman wasn’t the one about o commit a crime? For all Trayvon knew, Zimmerman was stalking him to do him harm or kidnap him.  It certainly would seem suspicious to me if some man that I didn’t know was following me and no, I wouldn’t have a polite conversation with him.
      You also need to deal with this phobia that you apparently have when it comes to males wearing hoodies.

      • Reggie Brown says

        Sheria, your response to my post is such an overreaction that it exemplifies what I mean by polarization and misinformation.
        To begin with, I never said if Trayvon Martin was a punk gangbanger wannabe he deserved to be killed. I never said he deserved to be killed at all! I never said that being suspended from school was an offense that merited the death penalty. I said information can help us make sense of this tragedy, and misinformation doesn’t help. You’re putting out even more misinformation by putting words in my mouth. I never said that black kids should have to watch what they wear when they walk down the street, or that black men should have to prove that they are not deserving of being shot. You’re making stuff up, acting as if I said it instead of you, and then criticizing me and exclaiming “What kind of nonsense is that?”
        I also didn’t say Zimmerman was in the right, or that we should accept Zimmerman’s word that he killed Trayvon in self defense. He’s been arrested and charged with a crime. Let’s see what the evidence shows. From your response, and from the reactions so far of many people who have already made up their minds about what happened, I’m guessing that if the evidence shows that Trayvon Martin went back to beat up Zimmerman, we’ll still be hearing that Martin was a poor little innocent boy who just went to the store for some candy. Or if he went back to beat up Zimmerman, then he HAD to do it because he was scared.
        You tell your kids whatever you want about this incident. I’m going to tell mine that if they’re followed by some stranger on a dark street, they should run away. If he engages them in conversation and they realize he’s a neighborhood watch member who thinks they’re up to no good, they can try to deescalate the situation by letting him know they belong in the neighborhood. I’m going to tell them to never lose your temper and pick a fight with a stranger in case he’s armed. And I’m going to tell them to be careful around people who hide their faces under hoods and hats. It’s not a phobia, it’s a fact of modern society that people, especially young men, attack and even kill other people for their money or possessions, and they often hide their identities to commit crimes. Obviously, not everyone wearing a hoodie is a criminal. But if you encounter someone whose actions are suspicious, and they’re not visible or identifiable, trust your instincts and give them a wide berth. Finally, I’m going to tell them that the best way to fight stereotypes is to show that you and other members of your group are not like the stereotype. I’m going to tell them that glorifying the gangsta look and talking or acting like a punk gangbanger just reinforces the negative stereotypes we’ve worked so hard to overcome.

        • says

          Being suspended from school has nothing to do with whether or not Zimmerman acted in self defense. It’s a non-issue that you brought up and declared, One suspension from school might be a mistake; three times indicates a serious problem. Is it smearing his reputation if people hear that he got into trouble? Or does it speak to his character and help people make sense of this tragedy?  

          So did you or did you not mean that school suspensions are indicative of Trayvon’s character? And what is this case about except whether Zimmerman was justified in killing Trayvon? So are you or are you not suggesting that Tryavon’s character as indicated by three school suspicions may be evidence that he attacked Zimmerman? If not, then why are you talking about school suspensions?
          Maybe Trayvon was a great kid, or maybe he was a punk gangbanger wannabe who went back to beat up the guy who had the nerve to follow him.Your words, not mine. You suggest that Trayvon may have been a punk gangbanger wannabe as if he were that would justify why Zimmerman killed him. I disagree. Unless Trayvon was in the process of committing a crime that put Zimmerman’s life in danger, he can’t use self-defense as a justification fo the shooting. Even as you say if Trayvon went back to beat up Zimmerman, unless Zimmerman had a reasonable fear for his life, under the law that he looks to for justification, the stand your ground law, Zimmerman had no right to shoot him.Being a gangbanger has nothing to do with this case either. You can’t shoot someone for being a gangbanger either. You see, I refuse to accept that who you are is ever a justification or explanation for someone taking your life. It is actions that the law prohibits, not attitudes or fashion choices. And the law is very specific about which actions merit the use of force. The issue is were those actions in play in this encounter and those are the only things to be considered legally. You speak of lifestyle and cultural norms and dressing styles as if they are relevant. Just because Zimmerman felt that Trayvon looked suspicious does not meet the criteria for self defense under the stand your ground statute.I didn’t put any words in your mouth. I responded to your specious argument.

          • Reggie Brown says

            The fact that Martin was suspended from school not just once, but three times, the issue of drug use and the question of whether or not he was in possession of stolen women’s jewelry and burglary tools absolutely could be pertinent to whether or not Zimmerman correctly perceived Martin as a threat to the neighborhood. We don’t know what happened, we weren’t there. But the very fact that I’m open to the possibility that Trayvon Martin might have been casing the neighborhood seems to anger you. It’s not “smearing” him; it’s a piece of the picture that might help us understand so we can prevent this kind of tragedy in the future.
            From what his family says, Martin was a good kid. But if he had been starting to make bad choices such as breaking into people’s houses, there’s a chance he actually was casing the neighborhood that his dad lived in. Maybe they have prints from some homes that were burglarized, and maybe they’re Martin’s prints. I don’t know if that’s what he was doing. I wasn’t there. But I listened to Zimmerman’s call to 911, and it sounds like he was genuinely concerned about Martin’s behavior, especially when Martin started to approach Zimmerman. He doesn’t sound like he even knows what skin color Martin has until Martin comes toward him. All this happens during the beginning of the 911 call. Martin was staring at Zimmerman and approached him with his hand in his waistband while Zimmerman’s talking to 911. Was he being confrontative?
            It’s possible that Martin got mad that Zimmerman was watching him. I would get angry if someone profiled me. But what would I do about it? If Martin actually had the chance to go home once he was out of Zimmerman’s sight, but instead went back to beat him up, and if he smashed Zimmerman’s head into the cement, then it’s not murder, is it? Again, we don’t know yet what actually happened.

            You suggest that Trayvon may have been a punk gangbanger wannabe as if he were that would justify why Zimmerman killed him.

            No. I suggest that if Martin was smashing Zimmerman’s head into the cement, and if they physical altercation really was started by Martin coming back to beat up Zimmerman (and we don’t know that either), then Zimmerman acted in self defense, under the law. You can easily kill someone by slamming their skull into the ground. We don’t know yet if Zimmerman made up that story, we don’t know who attacked whom, but the evidence in court will hopefully elucidate what actually happened.

            You can’t shoot someone for being a gangbanger either.

            Well duh. You see, my comment suggests the possibility of Martin’s actions starting and/or escalating a dangerous situation. You respond as if I’m saying kids that dress a certain way deserve to be killed. I’m not saying that, and you won’t understand my message while your anger toward me keeps your mind closed.
            I believe that people of any group can get labeled, identified and remembered by the actions of the worst members of that group, especially if they’re a minority easily identifiable by skin color or accent. It’s human nature to categorize good and bad, safe versus dangerous. It’s hard wired into our brains. If we couldn’t tell (and remember) poisonous plants from good ones, if humans couldn’t learn that some small mammals are viscous and others are easier to kill for food, then we wouldn’t be here today. Because of the way our brains and our social behavior evolved, we will always be at risk for dysfunction stereotyping. Given that reality, I believe it’s in our best interest to stop separating from other groups of people in ways that are, and should be, viewed negatively.

            You speak of lifestyle and cultural norms and dressing styles as if they are relevant. Just because Zimmerman felt that Trayvon looked suspicious does not meet the criteria for self defense under the stand your ground statute. I didn’t put any words in your mouth. I responded to your specious argument.

            This really isn’t that hard to understand. Of course looking suspicious does not meet criteria for self defense, but getting your head smashed could. The court will determine as best it can what happened that night. Meanwhile, the rest of us may want to try to make some sense out of this so we can help our own children. I’m not going to tell my kids it’s not safe for them to go to the store, as many prominent African-Americans have claimed. I’m going to tell them about the complexities of this situation, so they can actually learn more from it than just “watch out for big bad whitey racist.” There are plenty of murderous thugs out there in the world that they should avoid. But if this situation is more than that, they’re better off understanding that their own angry actions can escalate a situation.

    • says

      Thanks for the comment. It’s clear you spent a considerable amount of time sharing your thoughts and we appreciate that. I want to reply to a couple of lines in your comment.

      You said, “Then I heard that he was in his mid teens and over six feet tall, and I realized the picture supplied by the family made him look about 13.”

      I don’t know how old Trayvon was in the pics that have been posted but I will say that if he takes after his parents, particularly his mother, he probably looked very much like the pictures we’ve seen. His own mother doesn’t look much older than twenty. He appears to come from a youthful looking family. I doubt there was an effort, on the family’s part, to send post a misleading photo — it’s more likely they wanted to post a picture that looked like the Trayvon they knew and loved.

      You said, “and I had the same reaction: watch out, he looks like he’s casing my equipment to steal something.”

      I don’t know how you make a distinction between someone who is “looking at” your equipment and someone who is “casing” equipment, especially when you are talking about a complete stranger that you have no history with and have just encountered. You mention that they guy was wearing a baseball cap and hoodie. Are those indicators that someone is “casing” as opposed to “looking” or even “admiring”?

      You said, ” It made me think Zimmerman’s story could be plausible. Maybe he actually was following Martin because he saw him casing the neighborhood.”

      This is where it appears there is a leap to judgement. You went from stating that the white man “looks like he’s casing my equipment” to maybe Zimmerman saw “him casing the neighborhood”.

      Zimmerman, like you, could not have witnessed anyone “casing” anything. Without more evidence indicating  intent to steal — what you call “casing” is nothing more than profiling. Simply wearing a baseball cap and a hood should not raise suspicion. The other matter you fail to note is that it was RAINING. If it is raining and I’m outdoors, I frequently wear a hood especially if I’m not carrying an umbrella. If it is raining and I see someone outdoors wearing a hood I don’t think it is reasonable to assume that that person looks as if they are casing the neighborhood  — that is unless I already have a predisposed opinion about that person — an opinion that has lead me to call the police countless times in the past. 

      • Reggie Brown says

        You make good points Sharon. The younger picture of Martin bothers me because the media continues to use it next to a mug shot type of picture of Zimmerman. The impression you get is big mean man versus little sweet boy. We don’t know what happened yet, but if a six foot tall 17 year old teenager is on top of you banging your head into the cement, you are at risk of death. If that actually happened, Zimmerman didn’t commit murder, even if he followed Martin because he profiled him. He might have caused the tragedy, he might be a terrible person, but if Martin actually came back to find him and beat him up, I want us to all learn from that mistake. Pretending something else happened, and using misleading images to create a false narrative in the public’s mind is dangerous for the rest of us.
        The casing issue is more complicated. Have you ever seen anyone steal something from a store? You can sometimes tell they’re about to do something just from the way they’re looking around. I might have been wrong about the guy checking out my equipment. Maybe he was just curious about why kind of stuff I used. But then when I saw him look around nervously, it seemed like he was trying to see if anyone was watching him, you know? Haven’t you ever experienced that? Haven’t you ever walked down a street and something about someone coming toward you made you want to go to the other side of the street? Is that instinct, or if we could see a recording, would it show behaviors that clued us in? If so, I’d prefer to trust my instincts. I don’t know what Zimmerman saw that night. Maybe Martin was just deep in a phone conversation, which makes people act strange, sometimes waving their arms around or standing and staring. But listen to the recording of Zimmerman’s 911 call. It sounds like he really was concerned about Martin based on his actions, not his skin color. My guess is that he mistakenly thought Martin was doing something suspicious, watched him and reported it, and Martin didn’t like being followed so he responded with anger perhaps mixed with fear. Personally, if I was being followed by Zimmerman I would have high tailed it home. But like I said, we don’t know what really happened, and we might never know the truth.
        The hoodie issue is also complicated. Obviously, wearing a hoodie doesn’t automatically make you look suspicious. But many criminals hide their identities with hoods and hats. It was raining that night, so it’s perfectly reasonable to be wearing a hood up. But we also have a culture that incorporates hoodies into a look that doesn’t foster good relations with others. We have music that encourages violence toward others, especially women. Personally, I think we could make some real progress in race relations if we acknowledged that stereotypes can be experientially learned, they’re not just taught. When we stubbornly cling to the worse parts of our culture and decide we not only have the right to keep them but that criticizing them is racist, we do no favors to our children. We have the power to change how others view us, so let’s do it. We might not be able to stop full blown racists from continuing their nonsensical, destructive beliefs, but perhaps we can stop perpetuating racist attitudes if we encourage youth to stop glorifying negative stereotypes themselves. That doesn’t mean giving up hoodies, but it might mean rejecting the attitudes and behaviors that hoodies can epitomize.

        • says

          Reggie — good comments and yes, I have seen someone steal something and I am familiar with the look you speak of. Thanks for reading and commenting. These aren’t easy issues we’re tackling. But I have hope that if we don’t give up we can work together to improve race relations. 

  5. Linda says

    I, too, suspect we may be sitting on a powder keg involving not only people of color but gun-toting Tea Party members and right-wing fanatics.

    That is a well-written article, Sharon.

  6. says

    I nodded my head and muttered “uh-huh” the entire time that I read this post. My late grandmother had a phrase to indicate her total agreement with someone’s point of view, she tilt her head an proclaim,”You sure said a mouthful, honey child.”  Sharon, you sure said a mouthful. I have had conversations like the one you describe as talking past each another. I’ve had a lot of those conversations here lately as too many whites seem to have an absence of empathy for the grief and heartache felt by Trayvon Martin’s parents and family members. Your post is both timely and relevant. 


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