Monday, April 2, 2012

The Trayvon Martin Tragedy: The Perspective of a Middle-Aged White Guy

I’ve been listening, mostly silently, while bits and pieces of the story have come together. I’ve listened to different versions of the story, woven from those bits and pieces, some stories more plausible than others. Sometimes I feel unqualified to comment. What possible relevance is my perspective?

The pieces themselves aren’t in dispute: A black teenage boy in a hoodie, with a box of Skittles and a can of sweet tea, walking back from a convenience store. A half-hispanic neighborhood watch captain in an SUV, armed and suspicious and noncompliant when the 911 operator told him not to follow the object of his suspicions. A “stand your ground law” that has, arguably, increased the incidence of lethal shootings in the state of Florida since its implementation. A confrontation. A dead body. And, to this date, no arrest.

A nation’s president declaring that if he had a son, the boy would look like Trayvon Martin.

What happened between the watch captain on patrol, George Zimmerman, and the teenager on a mission to satisfy his sweet tooth, Trayvon Martin?

I have my guesses, but before sharing them I want to talk about the perspective I bring to the conversation. Because my way of piecing together the story is rooted in that perspective--and the relevance of that perspective is something I want to focus on.

So what is my perspective? I’m a white man; a middle-aged, somewhat introverted college professor living in a peaceful college town in Oklahoma. In my free time I write fiction, act (in community theatre), and play my violin. I ask again: Of what possible relevance is such a perspective to the tragedy involving Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman?

Late last week I had a conversation with a friend and colleague in the next office, Lawrence Ware, and we talked about our children. I have two young children, including an eight year old boy. My friend has two sons, both of them younger than mine. But unlike me, Lawrence is black. His sons are black. And because of their skin, he has fears for his sons that I simply don’t have.

He told me about advice he’d gotten from his father, advice that he intended to pass on to both of his children when they were old enough to understand. But passing on this advice wasn’t something he did cavalierly and without inner turmoil, the way you might pass on the advice to look for the good in others, or to remember to be grateful for what you have. This advice cannot help but have a bit of a bitter taste to it.

Here’s the thing: If you’re a black man in America and you want to run by the bank to cash a check, you might think about something that would never occur to someone like me—namely, changing out of your jeans and t-shirt, maybe putting on a button-down shirt and dressier shoes before you go. If you do think about doing that, a part of you might feel a twinge of resentment. “Why should I have to do that?” you might ask yourself. “White people don’t think about putting on a dress shirt before running errands. Going out of the house in comfortable clothes isn’t a crime. If there’s a problem here, it’s with the covert racism in society that leads people to immediately suspect me just because I’m black. Why should I have to accommodate that?”

You might ask yourself that. And if you have a son, you might ask why your son should be expected to accommodate that. “But when I don’t,” Lawrence said to me, “I have to deal with stupid questions. They’ll come up to me and ask what I’m doing there. Um…banking?”

This is just an example, but I think it helps to convey the reality that Lawrence, as a father, feels compelled to share with his sons. I’m not sure what words he’ll use. Maybe they’ll go something like this: “When you grow into a man, you’ve got to carry yourself in a certain way, dress in a certain way, so as to defuse the suspicion that would otherwise attach to you automatically, just because you’re a black man. Otherwise you court stupid questions.”

And sometimes, as the Trayvon Martin tragedy brings home—to Lawrence, to Barack Obama, to every black person trying to make a life in America—sometimes you court consequences far more grave than stupid questions.

“Right now,” Lawrence told me, “everyone looks at my sons and thinks how cute they are. But one day they’ll go from being cute to being suspicious.”

“My son,” I replied, “will likely go from being little-kid cute to being Justin Bieber cute.” My son, like me, is small for his age—the smallest kid in his class. He loves to dance and has been taking dance lessons since the age of three. He plays the piano. He’s got a small part in the current play being put on at the local community theatre, and he steals the scenes he’s in. He’s bright and funny and charming and argumentative. He’s writing a novel, and it’s orders of magnitude better than anything I could have done at his age.

I have fears for him, of course. I fear that soon enough his artistic qualities and his size will combine to make him a target for bullying. But there are things I’m not afraid of. I doubt he will ever be imposing to look at. I doubt anyone will ever see him coming down the street and be worried for their safety—crossing the street so as to avoid passing near him. If he runs to a convenience store to pick up some candy, I worry some bully might pick on him. But once he’s got his Skittles and sweet tea, what I imagine happened to Trayvon Martin is simply not something I worry happening to my son.

And what do I imagine happened to Trayvon Martin? Since only one person knows for sure, I think it’s best to share my version of the story in the language of maybes.

Maybe it never occurred to George Zimmerman, as he was on his nightly volunteer patrol, that his sense of suspicion had anything to do with Martin’s race. It was just a gut reaction: “I don’t know this guy, but he looks suspicious.” Of course, there’s a cultural template of suspicious characters, a composite portrait of who to fear, who to suspect of being up to no good—a portrait that springs from evening news snapshots, movies, warning gestures from a parent. But maybe Zimmerman wasn’t the introspective sort who’d think about such things. Maybe all he thought was, “This guy look suspicious.” He was volunteering his time to patrol the neighborhood because of some recent burglaries. He was out there on the street to catch the creeps responsible. And this guy looked suspicious.

And maybe Zimmerman was the kind of man who couldn’t see himself standing by and doing nothing while a “suspicious” person was in his neighborhood. Maybe such a narrative just didn’t fit with his idealized self-understanding, his image of the kind of man he was supposed to be. When he became the neighborhood watch captain, maybe it was in large measure because of that image he aspired to—the image of someone who took care of his own, who stood his ground against the bastards of the world. On the 911 tape, Zimmerman is heard lamenting that “the a$$holes always get away.” Maybe Zimmerman saw himself as the kind of guy who didn’t let them get away. That’s who he wanted to be. The guy who caught the a$$holes.

And this kid looked suspicious.

Of course, confronting a suspicious character is sure to get the adrenalin flowing—kicking up the fight-or-flight instincts we all have. But maybe Zimmerman didn’t want to be the kind of guy who chooses flight. That doesn’t mean he felt no fear. But he saw himself as the kind of guy who faces threats instead of running from them. In fact, a flutter of fear may have made him even more likely to stage a confrontation. Real mean don’t let their fears rule them. Real men take a stand.

And so, his whole body alive with a sense of danger, Zimmerman closed on the a$$hole who, by God, wasn’t going to get away this time.

And Trayvon Martin. He was minding his own business. Maybe he was feeling a little out of place. After all, this wasn’t his neighborhood. His father had brought him here after he’d gotten into a bit of trouble at school. He felt a little ashamed about that, but mostly now he felt restless and bored, and a little out of sorts. That’s why he went out in the rain, why he picked up a box of candy. Just to do something.

And then he saw Zimmerman approaching. Maybe Zimmerman’s approach was aggressive, triggering Martin’s own fight-or-flight instincts. Maybe Zimmerman immediately launched into accusations. “What are you doing here? What are you up to?” Maybe Martin said “That’s none of your business!” Maybe Zimmerman responded with something like, “Hell yeah, it’s my business. I’m the neighborhood watch captain.”

And maybe, just maybe, Martin suddenly felt profiled. Maybe he thought to himself, “I’ve got as much of a right to walk to the store for some Skittles as anyone else.” Maybe he thought, “I’ve got as much of a right as anyone else to pull up my hoodie when it rains.” Maybe he thought of how unfair it all was, that he couldn’t just live his life without someone suspecting him, judging him a criminal. And so maybe he decided, in that moment, to stand up for his rights.

Maybe he shouted. Maybe he got in Zimmerman’s face. Maybe Zimmerman, primed for aggression, shoved Martin. Maybe Martin shoved back. And maybe, then, something exploded inside Zimmerman. The a$$hole thief ain’t getting away with it this time. This time he’s met a real man, someone who stands up for his community, someone who ain’t afraid.

Maybe Zimmerman attacked, and maybe Martin flailed defensively against the assault, maybe landing a punch. Maybe Zimmerman’s fight-or-flight terror and rage made him fling Martin to the ground. Maybe Martin’s cries for help fueled that part of Zimmerman that was finally taking care of business, finally putting those a$$holes in their place. The cries of terror sparked, not empathy, but triumph and contempt. And before he even knew what he’d done, he put a final punctuation mark on that contempt. Take that, you pathetic little thief.

And then, in the silence that followed, Zimmerman found himself staring down at a corpse. The terror and aggression fell away in the face of what he’d done. “Oh my God. Ohmygodohmygod.” He stood there, perhaps trembling, as the police arrived. And in the days and weeks that followed, perhaps he’s struggled to maintain that portrait of himself, the portrait of the man who stands his ground, who confronts the a$$holes, who doesn’t let them get away.

Maybe, in moments of sudden and quickly repressed horror, he wonders if he’s the a$$hole who shouldn’t get away.

Or maybe not.

What I do know is that the fear that my son might end up like Trayvon Martin isn’t one that keeps me awake at night. And I know that my friend Lawrence does fear this very thing. Because he’s black. Because, even if his sons end up being interested in acting or dancing or theatre or writing, even if they’re small for their age, the color of their skin will be enough. Now they’re adorable. Now everyone wants to hug them. But the clock is ticking down to a day when—in the language of my friend—they’ll carry the weight of white America’s suspicions.

And I know that nothing will get better until we understand each others’ fears.

And this takes me back to my opening question: Of what possible relevance is the perspective of someone like me? Here, I think, is the answer: My perspective will help to shape how, as a society, we will change—or resist change—in the light of this and similar tragedies. Whether it is informed or not, whether it is wise or not, my perspective will have an impact. It is relevant because it has power.

And so I have a responsibility to shape it carefully and critically. To make it as wise and informed as I can. To give it voice, and to invite feedback that can correct my oversights and fill in my blind spots.

It’s easy for our perspectives to become solipsistic—defined entirely by our own narrow fears and hopes, ideals and anxieties. And sometimes, as we’ve seen, such solipsistic perspectives—even when unstated and unquestioned, perhaps especially then—can become the backdrop to tragedy.


  1. A very good piece. I, too, share that fear that my own son could be Trayvon Martin especially considering my son is and will be big for his age. I appreciate your words and perspective.

  2. You obviously have a vivid imagination; maybe that’s what makes you a good writer! Nevertheless, maybe the Sanford, Florida police are relying on evidence before them, such as Zimmerman’s bloodied nose and a bloodied wound on the back of Zimmerman’s head. Or relying on the one eye-witness report that the taller lanky Martin was attacking the smaller older Zimmerman. There is no report yet of wounds on Martin’s body that would indicate that Martin had been attacked by Zimmerman, other than the single gunshot wound to the chest. Zimmerman claims it was self defense.

    Police investigators exercise discretion almost every day about whether or not to arrest someone who shoots someone else in self-defense. This happens regularly. If further investigation reveals that the police were wrong, there will surely be an arrest. The story is far from over. It is tragic that Martin is dead! And if Zimmerman’s self defense statement is true, then the way he is being vilified is equally tragic.

  3. Hi Eric,

    A very thoughtful piece on a very important topic.

    One thing that strikes me is how quickly a perfectly normal situation can degenerate into a tragedy. There is something uncanny about the sequence of small errors and misjudgments that led from a “nothing happens” situation to complete hell. Looked individually, as in your reconstruction, each of these steps seems understandable but take a step back and the whole thing seems totally absurd.

    Another aspect is that the whole thing has “fear” writ large all over the place. Isn't fear an important factor in the creation of these gated communities? Isn't it fear that led to this gun culture in which shooting somebody seems almost commonplace? It's fear that made Zimmerman look suspiciously at a walking stranger. Fear (justified in this case) that led Martin to feel threatened by the stranger following him in a car. It's so terribly sad.

    Another story I read about, but not well known, involves a 68 year-old veteran, Kenneth Chamberlain, living alone in his apartment. He had a heart condition and wore a device he could use to call for medical hep in an emergency. The device was activated by error while he was sleeping – a false alarm. Minutes later, he was dead, shot twice by the police in his apartment. DemocracyNow had a piece on this in March. Another example of a “nothing happens” situation degenerating in no time into complete tragedy. And, yes, he was black.

  4. Anonymous #2: This was absolutely a case of imaginative reconstruction based on pieces of ambiguous evidence--but it's an exercise of imaginative reconstruction with a point, one that I don't want to have lost in potential wrangling about the plausibility of the details or debate about the relative merits of my imagined reconstruction and the responding officers' imagined reconstructions.

    My point could have been as readily made had I presented Martin as the one who first lost control of his temper in the shoving match, if I'd described him as punching Zimmerman in the nose, causing him to trip and fall. We could well imagine Zimmerman looking up at the figure of Martin standing over him, head swimming from where the pavement had hit the back of his head, and in a rush of terror pulling out his gun.

    The deep point here isn't how each escalating step occured before the final escalation to lethal violence. It's likely even the participants would have a hard time accurately reconstructing the surge of events. The deep point is the one expressed by JP--about how fear can generate dangerous confrontations, how fear can lead each party in the confrontation to incrementally escalate the conflict, and how the presence of a gun in the mix increases the chances that someone ends up dead.

    However the details went, it is likely that BOTH young men were afraid of the other, BOTH acted out of fear, BOTH took incrementally more aggressive acts out of fear. Conceivable, both would have experienced their own aggressive acts as matters of self-defense--even though each aggressive act only produced heightened aggression until one party's final lethal aggression.

    And black men in this country, simply by virtue of being black men, are more likely to be feared, and so more likely to find themselves in tragic situations like the one Trayvon Martin faced. And this is part of the reality in which black friends of mine live. It is a reality they face not only for themselves but for their sons. It is a reality that inspires fears I don't have, fears I wouldn't understand or appreciate without listening openly and compassionately to others.