For the last several days since George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin, I have relied on other writers to articulate my thoughts and feelings about the verdict. Amy and I have been surprised by how emotional we’ve been about it all and about how closely to home the news has struck.
I want to make it clear that I don’t know what all this means or what we ought to learn from it. I don’t have any proposals for making America a better or safer or more just society. I don’t have any special wisdom or insight into race relations. But I’m a dad and, more to the point, I’m a dad who worries. And I’ve finally captured a few thoughts that have been circulating in my brain. In no particular order:
1. It’s time we admit race matters. I’m not convinced George Zimmerman is a racist. I’m not qualified to make that judgment. But I do believe that his presuppositions about black males contributed to his actions on the night he shot Trayvon Martin. If that’s true, then that means race matters.
Americans all know that race should not determine what we think of someone (i.e., whether we fear them or find them suspicious). Unfortunately, because we know race should not affect our judgment of people, we have convinced ourselves that race does not affect our judgment of people. And that’s just not the case. (For data, see paragraph six of this great post by Jen Hatmaker.) It’s time we admit that race matters, that it affects our decisions, that for all our efforts to be colorblind, we are not.
Be honest: how many of these statements do you agree with, whether or not you’d admit it out loud? I suspect all black men are aggressive. I suspect all Asian men are good at math. I suspect all hispanic men know how to hang drywall.
Saying these things out loud makes us feel racist. But we need to acknowledge assumptions if we hope to move beyond them.
It shames me to admit that I sometimes feel uncomfortable or unsafe in the presence of unfamiliar black men—say, in elevators or on dark streets. By God’s grace, this is changing. But I’m learning what’s at stake if I don’t come clean about this fear. If I’m not honest about my feelings about race, I can convince myself that race doesn’t matter. But it does. And I think it’s time we all admit that. (For more on this, read—please read—these reflections from my friend Daniel Hill.)
2. It’s not easy to raise a black son in America. I can’t imagine what it must be like to grow up assuming that all the people who are supposed to look out for my best interest—policemen, teachers, neighborhood watchmen—will expect the worst of me because of the color of my skin. A friend of mine suggested this week that I will do my son a world of good if I’ll raise him to be articulate and respectful. Of course that will be my goal with all my children. But stories like the 2009 arrest of Henry Louis Gates at his own home remind me that black boys and black men do not always receive the benefit of the doubt. I always do.
I barely feel equipped to make my son healthy lunches when Amy is out. Much less do I feel prepared to teach him how to respect those who, through no fault of his own, may not respect him until he has shattered their presuppositions.
3. What we call “justice” is really just the efforts of frail humans to make the best of bad situations. No one wins in a case like this. A son is dead. A man has to live with the guilt of taking a human life. In this scenario, “justice has been done” means legal culpability has been established and the legal consequences of one man’s actions have been decided. But wrong has not been put to right. Societal equilibrium has not been restored. Injustice has not been defeated.
It’s important to remember that the American justice system is not a fool-proof system. It’s a great system; maybe the best in the world (I don’t know all the systems, so who am I to say?). But we’ve spent the better part of 400 years figuring out how to apply in practice the values and ideals we hold in principle. And we’re only people, and people make mistakes. Yes, the jury has spoken. And the jury is made up of people who leave their turn signal on for 45 miles on the interstate, who can’t figure out the self checkout register at Wal-Mart, who we are sure the rest of the year are to blame for ruining America. I’m not saying they got it wrong in this case; I don’t know. I respect our system. I am confident in our system. But our system does not achieve ultimate justice.
4. The gospel is our only hope. Some have quoted Colossians 3:11—”here there is no Jew or Gentile”—to remind us all this week that our primary identity is not racial but spiritual. Christians are one in Christ, for sure. However, I think Paul’s point in Colossians is that from God’s perspective there is no Jew or Gentile, etc. No one has special access to God based on genetics, and no one is excluded by genetics. But the book of Acts tells us that, from a human perspective, the challenges that arise when Jews and Gentiles (or African- and Anglo-Americans) worship together do not disappear. The gospel doesn’t help because it tells us we are all one. Coca-Cola commercials tell us that. The gospel transforms us because it teaches us that, in Christ, we can acknowledge and embrace those who are not like us. Confession and forgiveness are required for things to be on earth as they are in Heaven (i.e., one in Christ).