Sunday, April 01, 2012

Driving While Black

This is a little off topic for me since it does not directly affect Jews or Judaism. But I think it needs to be said. As citizens living in America I think it is important for us speak out on ethical issues that affect the country in which we live. I suppose it can be put in the category of Tikun Olam - repairing the world in the area of social justice. One can find many instances by Chazal who enacted various laws M'pnei Tikun HaOlam.

I recall an incident many years ago concerning black civil rights activist Jesse Jackson. It involved his being followed in an alley one night by a shadowy figure. Jackson felt threatened until he saw that the person following him was not black. He thereupon felt an immediate sense of relief.

Had Jackson been white, this would be seen as typical knee jerk racial prejudice by a white man against black people. But Jackson in not only black - he never misses an opportunity to point out this kind of prejudice among whites.

That he is black, a civil rights activist and had this reaction says quite a bit. It tells a story that prejudice against black people seems to exist even among those of the same race in the forefront of fighting it.

For the innocent black population this type of prejudice is real, it is devastating, and it is grossly unfair. Statistics show that black people are profiled negatively by law enforcement far more often than white people. The percentage of black people in prisons far exceeds their percentage of the population. Most people fear an unfamiliar black man more than an unfamiliar while man. As the aforementioned episode with Jackson shows even black people seem to feel this way. I have heard black comedians even joke about the fact that they are stopped by police because they were driving while black. It is both funny and sad. But I think true.

One can go into the reasons for this. Prejudice against black people has continued to exist since the era of slavery. Even after the emancipation proclamation, this prejudice has prevented equal opportunity in the work place, in business, and in the quality of education. Many black people through no fault of their own as a race are poor, undereducated, and live in blighted neighborhoods. That contributes to a greater number of dysfunctional families as well. All this is a perfect formula for a culture that breeds crime.

People in those kinds of environments are more likely to violent criminals. Fear of a violent black man therefore persists even in the minds of people like Jesse Jackson. This fear is not an irrational one. It says a lot about our failure as a nation to provide a level playing field for all of our citizens.

And it says nothing at all about any innate ability of a particular race. All of humanity is created in the image of God. If prejudice was eliminated and all of mankind were given equal opportunity in all areas of life we would not see any statistical differences between the races in areas of ethics, morality, honesty, and achievement - economic or otherwise.

This brings me to Trayvon Martin, the young unarmed black man that was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a white ‘neighborhood watchman’ who was armed. Zimmerman claims it was self defense against an aggressive assailant. And yet all that is known about Tryavon Martin is that he was a peaceful easy going young man who had good values and wouldn’t harm a fly. His crime apparently is that he was wearing a ‘hoodie’ – a jacket with a hood that has increasingly become the look of gang members - although by far many fine young people of all races wear hoodies, including some of my own grandchildren.

If I understand correctly Zimmerman’s neighborhood was an upscale all white neighborhood. I don’t know what occurred between these two people that ended up in the death of a young and apparently innocent black man. But the media has already tried and convicted Zimmerman as a racist killer. All the ‘usual suspects’- including Jesse Jackson are out participating in massive protests against authorities for not arresting him.

I understand their outrage. I sympathize with it. It does seem like racial bias once again has won the day. But has it? I think it has. But against whom? The media hasn’t helped. Watching news reports and seeing pictures displayed, one will see an almost angelic picture of Trayvon Martin and an ugly mug shot of George Zimmerman. If one were to judge by pictures alone, who wouldn’t assign guilt to Zimmerman and innocence to the angelic looking Martin? Isn’t the media guilty of reverse prejudice here? Zimmerman’s defenders do after all speak of him in the same glowing terms as those who knew Martin speak of him.

The bottom line is that Mr. Zimmerman has been unfairly vilified by a media that is understandably sympathetic to the victim. And by an outraged black community that is sick and tired of being treated like second class citizens at best and criminals at worst.

But maybe - just maybe - Mr. Zimmerman is an innocent victim here too. Maybe he saw what Jesse Jackson saw in that alley many years ago. Maybe he thought he saw a weapon or a threatening move and feared for his life. Maybe there was a struggle of some sort – even though there are no bruises on Zimmerman’s body. Or maybe he embellished his story to make it more believable but in essence still felt threatened? Who knows?

We do not know what happened. Rushing to judgment against a white man is just as bad as rushing to judgment against a black man.

It does no one any good to rush to judgment anywhere. What is needed is a thorough investigation by the police. I would include an equal number of black and white investigators. Let them determine what really happened to the best of their ability. And then let the chips fall where they may. Let the justice system work. What is happening now is not conducive to peace and harmony between the races. The one thing this country does not need is another excuse for a race riot.