Trayvon Martin, an anglo reflection

The recent jury verdict in Florida v. Zimmerman has served as a magnifying glass that has focused the rays of racial reality in the United States and caused a fire. My own thought life around the case has been something of a roller coaster ride. Facebook has allowed me to listen in to the pain of others with an immediacy often not afforded across cultures. It has also afforded me the chance to realize how tone deaf those of us in the majority can be to the pain of those who are not.

As I’ve read various blog posts, articles, columns, and the like I’ve noticed something of a trend. Many of the reflections by people of color focus on their first person experiences of profiling or of some other form of injustice. Many of the reflections by anglos have focused on a defense of the judicial system as a reasonably fair arbiter of an approximate truth. In some ways, we’ve been talking past each other.

As a white American, the Martin case has been difficult to interpret both in itself and in how it sheds light on race in America. I don’t have much to offer in this regard.

At the risk of raising the ire of some readers, I’d like to offer a brief reflection on encountering this discussion as a white man. Much has been written using words like “privilege” and “oppression.” I don’t dispute that those are appropriate words in many respects.

It’s curious to me that many who have written about white privilege should be so apparently taken aback when Anglos resist the notion or, at least, seek to minimize it.

Consider what is really being said.

Those words are used to describe a reality that is said to affect all of life, sort of like a filter that is set between a camera lens and the subject of the photo. The filter is prior to the actual scene being shot and yet it silently affects the final photograph. It could also be like the floors in my old house. They have a gentle slope to them–place a ball in the center of the room and it will begin to roll, always in the same direction.

Ironically, despite having cultural privilege and power I have experienced in the Trayvon Martin case a sense of profound powerlessness:

  • I am told that there is something of a cultural law (an uneven floor, if you like) in place that conspires, despite my objections, to automatically favor people like me (though not all equally) over others who are unlike me.
  • That law exists in a space that is unconscious (and imperceptible) to most all of us. In the discharge of their normal duties, many are operating with unconscious reference to this law.
  • It affects everything–employment decisions, subjective feelings of safety, traffic stops, etc.
  • There seems to be precious little that can be done about it in the normal ways we seek to remedy ills. Do we require that juries in certain instances have a fixed number of jurors of the same ethnicity as the defendant? Does this bias the jury or counter-bias it?
  • It renders decisions of even the most sacrosanct institutions of our society–the jury–as open to question. This is no small thing for whites to swallow since we’re generally confidant that our courts will deliver something closely approximating justice.

To someone generally used to being able to solve problems, this powerlessness is profoundly frustrating.

This may sound whiney and I certainly don’t wish to make myself out as suffering in anything close to the same degree as my black friends, but this experience is real. It is a real grieving in the face of something wrong that is bigger than me–even though it benefits me. I’m not sure, but I think this grief undergirds the silence of many in white America.