Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Content of their Character

Trayvon Martin
I’m going to go off script somewhat today and talk about the black experience in America. Ever since the not guilty verdict for George Zimmerman – acquitting him of the murder of Trayvon Martin, this subject has re-emerged in the forefront of American consciousness. For Jews it is important for us confront this issue because as Americans we cannot avoid being influenced by the same things our fellow non Jewish Americans are.

Just to review the case, George Zimmerman saw what he thought was a suspicious looking black man in what is essentially an upscale white neighborhood in Florida. Zimmerman was licensed to carry a gun and was a member of a civilian watchdog group. After calling 911, he was told to stay in his car and wait for the police to show up. Zimmerman instead decided to confront Martin. A fight between them ensued. With Martin eventually seeming to have the upper hand and bludgeoning him, Zimmerman, fearing for his life drew his weapon and fatally shot Martin.

Reactions to Zimmerman’s acquittal seemed to reflect whether one viewed the event along racial lines or justice system lines. The former saw this as an injustice. The latter saw this as justice. The verdict has resulted in many protests against the verdict - viewing it as racist. And although not universally the case, it was mostly the black community that tended to see this as an  injustice. Most white people saw it as a just verdict by a jury of Zimmerman’s peers.

I am not in any position to judge which side is correct, except to say that the jury has spoken. They were in the courtroom. They saw the facts presented in an adversarial way… and decided that the evidence presented by the prosecution left reasonable doubt about Zimmerman’s guilt – which of course required a not guilty verdict.

My issue is not so much about the correctness of the verdict. But I do think there is a very racial element to this case. This was brought home to me by comments made earlier by Attorney General Eric Holder; and more importantly – and accurately by the President in his extemporaneous comments last Friday. I think he hit the nail on the head.

The fact is that racial bias against blacks does exist in this country. And yet I don’t think it is generated by racism or any special hatred. I further think that this bias played a part in the death of Trayvon Martin – even though I don’t think George Zimmerman is necessarily a racist.

This can be illustrated by an event that happened to Jesse Jackson many years ago. Thinking he was being followed by someone in an alley in Washington DC, he looked over his shoulder with concern. When he realized it was a white man who was behind him instead of a black man, he felt a sense of relief.

Now I don’t think anyone can accuse Jesse Jackson of being racist against his own people. What this episode demonstrates is the sad reality that the black community has an excessive share of criminals and victims. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (1976 – 2005) shows that blacks, who make up 13% of the population commit more than 50% of the murders. And that 93% of black murder victims are killed by other blacks. These statistics are breathtaking!

Why this is so is beyond the scope of the post. Suffice it to say that some (but certainly not all) of the blame lies with a history of prejudice against our black citizens that denied them equal opportunities in education and jobs… and a culture of poverty that evolved - which fostered a disdain for the law by many young blacks. That contributed to a mentality that encouraged highly illegal ways of making money and violent ways of protecting it. 

The sight of a local pimp or drug dealer who is surrounded with the trappings of wealth, power and even prestige makes it very difficult for young black people (with poor educational and job opportunities) to resist joining them in that way of life. Even parents in poor black neighborhoods who have succeeded in resisting that way of life for themselves have a hard time convicting their children of it. Which says a lot about the vast middle class of black people who managed to overcome adversity; buck those influences and better their lives.

Nonetheless law enforcement and the justice system reflects a bias based on the reality of the statistics cited above. They tend to see – at least subconsciously - black men as guilty until proven innocent and therefore more likely to be sent to prison.

That black people do have a larger share of criminals in their population than white people was courageously alluded to by President in his remarks on Friday. It was in the context of explaining why an unidentified black person is looked at with more suspicion than an unidentified white person.

George Zimmerman
This explains why Zimmerman saw Martin’s skin color as a threat. It is - as the president described - why a white woman in an elevator will clutch her purse more tightly in an elevator when a black person enters. And why Jesse Jackson felt fear when he at first thought a black man was following him and then relief upon discovering it was a white person. It is why security people in department stores tend to keep a sharper eye on a black customer than a white one. It is why a black person cannot hail a cab as easily as a white person. The President said that he was a victim of this kind of reaction all the way up to the time he became a US senator. By then he was recognized and no longer feared.

So this is not really about racism but about fear – a fear based on both perception and reality. I do not think that there is any inherent racism in most Americans. Although we do have our share of actual racists, they are a small minority.

Exacerbating the problem are portrayals of blacks in the entertainment industry. Often they are portrayed as gang members, drug dealers, pimps, and in various other negative ways… even as they try and portray black leading men and women as positive role models – often being more ethical than their white co-stars. The problem is that aside from these black protagonists, the role of other blacks are often portrayed stereotypically - as bad.

The entertainment industry is a very important factor here. The influence they have on public perception is huge. Does art imitate life?  Does life imitate art? Or does that even matter?

As I said, most black people are like their white counterparts – having the same middle class values as everyone else. They just want to live their lives and ‘pursue happiness’. They are the same morally, ethically, and even culturally as their white counterparts.

Many are highly educated and have assimilated very nicely into society with decent jobs as professionals, entrepreneurs, craftsman, academics… what have you. But there is also that segment of the black population that is like the negative stereotype - exactly as portrayed in the entertainment industry. Of course there are many whites that are just as bad as this segment of blacks. But the entertainment industry too often puts black people in this role thus reinforcing that negative stereotype. And unfortunately statistics like the ones I quoted above feed that stereotype which feeds the public perception.

By looking at the black experience through this lens, one can begin to understand why black people are upset by the Zimmerman verdict. They feel persecuted. Like it or not – the bias is there even though it not necessarily sourced in racism.

What about us? How do Jews view black people? I’m afraid to say that we are no better than the rest of society. We have our racist bigots too. Some of it may even be subconscious… but it’s there. However even those of us who despise racism, might feel like Jesse Jackson did under the same circumstances.

This is a terrible way for any decent human being to live. Imagine that even though one is an ethical and moral human being, he is nonetheless treated with suspicion almost all the time because of the skin color he was born with.

I could see the anguish in the President’s eyes when he described his experiences along these lines. As I said the vast majority of black people in this country are ethical and moral people with middle class values – just like white people. And just like white people - they try and transmit those values to their children. But the depressing feeling a black father must have when he tells a child that he will always be looked upon in life with more suspicion that his white counterpart must be very great!

How we fix this is the $64,000 question. I don’t think simple dialogue as some have suggested (including the President) is enough. I don’t have any answers. Just a lot of questions. The president has said that things have gotten better. True, he was elected to the highest office in the land by a majority of the people. Twice. But Trayvon Martin’s death at the hand of George Zimmerman has reawakened racial tensions. Understandably so. Had Martin been white, he’d probably still be alive.  There is little doubt about that in my mind.