If President Obama could have been Trayvon Martin, anyone in white America could have been George Zimmerman.
In his startlingly candid press conference following the Zimmerman verdict, President Obama identified himself with Trayvon Martin, saying that he "could have been Trayvon." He went on to say that he and most other black Americans have been profiled by those around them.
The corollary, left largely unspoken, is that the rest of Americans who are not black could have been Zimmerman. That is, most white or non-black Americans have at times instinctively profiled African Americans as more likely to be dangerous than people who are not. They have all reacted like Zimmerman did in his mind. The difference is that Zimmerman had a lethal weapon on him and lived in a state that allows and even encourages citizens wield guns in public altercations.
Let's be honest: the human brain is designed to make snap decisions by quickly processing and often oversimplifying information available through our senses combined with our perceptions of the past. Pointing out that Zimmerman behaved this way -- or denying that he did -- are equally unproductive ways to react to the Martin-Zimmerman case.
The task before us as a nation is not to dwell endlessly in the past nor to deny that such profiling exists. It does. We all know it. Our task is to move forward and to wean ourselves off of this corrosive habit. It's almost as if we need a national 12-step program to stand up and say "my name is white America, and I'm a racist." Then we can take inventory of ways in which we've perpetuated subtle racism and self-consciously begin to recognize the moments and the triggers that lead us down that path and begin to form healthier mental habits in their place.
Some will say that such profiling is not racism, but a pragmatic reaction to statistics and experience. I'm reminded of the arguments and counterarguments regarding profiling Muslims, Arabs or people from the Middle East in the wake of terrorist attacks. It isn't entirely unreasonable, some point out, to focus on Muslims and Middle Easterners as the most likely terrorists; it is simply an efficient way to use resources. But by doing so, are we not confirming the anti-Muslim bias that is the supposed cause of Muslim rage against the U.S.? When we react to African American young men differently do we not encourage a sense that they are somehow outside of the mainstream culture? Second class citizens? More importantly, we lose the essence our national ideals if we unfairly target one ethnic or religious segment of the population.
We are not and have never been an ethnic nation. We are a nation of laws and political and social principles. If we abandon those principles or fail to strive toward their perfection, we are nothing but a meaningless land mass, a name, a flag. The promise of America, as imagined by our Founding Fathers, demands that we continually break with the past and move inexorably -- if slowly -- toward the ideal state that is our collective aspiration. We need to admit that there are vestigial habits malingering from our history of human slavery. We need to recognize that such habits do not make their perpetrators evil, but that those habits must be brought into the daylight and gradually eradicated.
With regard the Stand Your Ground laws, this case demonstrates the danger of encouraging vigilantism outside of private homes. Well-intentioned people may feel that such laws provide greater security, but the true result will tend to be more carnage and life-and-death decisions made by amateurs rather than courts of law.