JOPLIN, Mo. —
As a Caucasian student and teacher of the issues of ethnicity, diversity and a multiethnic ministry, I am left in challenging position by the George Zimmerman verdict.
Based on social media interactions of the past few days, it would seem that I have not gotten angry enough for my black friends, while my white friends think I am making too much of the whole thing.
To my black friends I say: “I realize I will never know what it is like to be a young black man in America. When I walk down any street at any time of day or night, the fact that I am white does not make me concerned about how I will be perceived or treated. When a police officer pulls me over, I always know what I was doing wrong before he or she even asks. And a brief conversation, ending with a warning or a ticket, is all I expect to happen.
“And my expectations have been met every time: No prolonged inquiries, no pat-downs and no searches of my car. Even when I’m wearing a hoodie. And should I ever land in court, I don’t have the fear — real or imagined — that the shade of my melanin will shade the trial or sentence against me.”
Given these fears that my black friends have about law enforcement and the criminal justice system, I can certainly sympathize with their outrage over the tragic death of a teenage boy at the hands of a wannabe officer who failed to obey the police and caused a tragedy as a result.
But is this the case of a racist murderer set free by a biased jury? I am not so certain. There is enough in question about that night to leave open the possibility that Zimmerman was simply well-intentioned, got in over his head and in a moment of panic, in fear for his life, shot Trayvon Martin in self-defense.
Is that what happened? No one but God can be completely certain. But those of us who were not there should at least allow for the fallibility of our own interpretations of the events.
This is why, from the earliest reports of that fateful night, I have urged caution in making this case the poster child for arguments about how our justice system is failing the African-American community. The debate will continue about the culprits for the disproportionately high prison rates for blacks — whether the system is biased against black people or whether black people are simply committing a disproportionate number of crimes — but the uncertainty surrounding the events of the Zimmerman case only clutters the argument.
To my white friends, on the other hand, I say: “Don’t be so quick to dismiss the possibility that racism was at play. We live in a fallen world, and we would be naïve to think that a weapon our spiritual enemy has successfully wielded for centuries has somehow been retired.”
I find it telling that the first people to dismiss race as an issue in the context of a tragedy like this come from the white majority. These dismissive claims, even if true, do not demonstrate an attempt at sympathy or understanding and thus will not help you gain an audience with those who have a history of being treated unfairly because their skin is too dark — let alone build a bridge of reconciliation.
But perhaps that is the most troubling trend I have noticed among so many of my white friends in the aftermath of the Zimmerman case: Reconciliation has not been on their agenda. The celebratory reactions — often seasoned with attacks on Trayvon’s character and generalizations about the “liberal media” — have been a disturbing reminder of how calloused our hearts can become. And given that so many of these friends profess to be followers of Christ makes the lack of gracious, reconciliatory language all the more egregious.
A troubled teenage boy died before he ever had a chance to really live. And now a troubled man must live with all that happened that night and has happened ever since.
God’s heart is grieved by both. Is yours?
Travis Hurley teaches on issues of diversity in ministry for Ozark Christian College in Joplin.