I cannot read about the George Zimmerman murder trial without imagining that Trayvon Martin could have been one of my students. But I also cannot help imagining that George Zimmerman might also have once been one of my students.
I have seen many of the young African American men I've taught and coached over the years being harshly judged for being black and for dressing in a manner that others find threatening and for refusing to mollify those who feel threatened by them.
But I have also taught young men -- some of them also African American (some of them the same African Americans being harshly judged for their appearance) -- who suffered the oppression of being a good kid in a neighborhood with mean streets, getting pushed around, mugged, punked, victimized, made to feel weak and helpless. And I've heard those young men scream quietly for their justice, and though I've never known one to arm himself and do something awful -- and I don't know what possessed George Zimmerman to do what he did -- I can imagine, sadly, the why and the how.
It ought to bother us all that such a thing can happen, that it might even have been destined to happen -- to someone at some point -- and instead of just taking sides in this tragic case, let's try doing some collective soul-searching and let's realize that if we don't, it can easily happen again.
A few years ago, on the bus ride to a basketball game, an assistant coach and I got to talking about racial profiling.
The assistant -- I'll call him B -- was a student in my English class and a basketball player on our team ten years ago. He's a law enforcement officer now and seemed to enjoy teaching me a thing or two about what he said were the realities of life on the streets of inner-city Los Angeles.
B -- who is African American -- said that racial profiling, whatever any police department claims, is standard operating procedure. He said that if I, a "middle-aged white-man" were sitting inside my car in the projects that I should be stopped and questioned -- because I "don't belong there" and am very likely involved in something criminal -- just like a "young black dude in a doo-rag walking around in Bel-Air."
He must have known that I would argue the merits of such practice and the inherent assumptions -- and I did. I reminded him that in this country people are supposed to be allowed to travel anywhere anytime so long as they don't violate the law -- and that assuming we are violating the law because of our appearance or ethnicity is a violation of our civil rights.
"That's right," he said. "And it's a necessary violation." Then he asked me if I ever made assumptions about the teenagers who entered my classroom. If, for example, a young man wore "gang attire." I told him that I'd had enough such young men in my classroom over the years to know better. That while some young men in "gang attire" have no interest in learning, others were waiting to be engaged and willing to make the effort. I told him that I hoped as a police officer he was as open-minded toward young men who appeared to be gang-affiliated and he said, "That's how you get killed."
And I understood his point. The streets aren't at all like a classroom -- and anyway the truth is that I do make some assumptions about students based upon their appearance. I've yet to meet a teacher who never does. I try to make those assumptions with a willingness to bend my impressions and often am hoping those first impressions prove wrong. But I don't want to be foolish -- I am, after all, responsible for the safety of my students.
Snap judgments are probably unavoidable. They are arguably a part of our nature, a means by which our species survived for thousands of years, but we have overcome other destructive parts of our nature, at least many of us have, and killing someone because of a snap judgment has to be avoidable. It has to be. Or none of us will ever be safe.
I don't know what happened the night Trayvon Martin was shot and killed. I know what I believe and what I don't believe, but I wasn't there and I'm not on the jury so mine is just another semi-informed opinion.
But whatever the verdict and however any of us feel about it, this incident is a symptom of a sickness of which we are all a part.
No one should have to carry the burden of his color or gender or features. No one. And as long as we continue to accept racial prejudice or racial profiling in any manner there will probably be grotesque misunderstandings -- and whatever you believe about what happened between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, we can probably describe it as a grotesque and tragic misunderstanding that should have been avoided.
Half a century ago our congress and president had the good sense to purge discrimination from our legal code. How long will it take before we purge it from our hearts?
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