What the Zimmerman Trial Means to Me

Written by Brandon O'Brien on July 16th, 2013

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.

I’ll start.

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).


17 Comments so far ↓

  1. Exalted Father-in-law says:

    Well said, young man. Well said.

  2. Andrea Kendrick says:

    I am proud to know you, Brandon.

  3. AJ says:

    As a father as well, here’s what I have to say in response to your blog:
    1) Train your son to think the best of people regardless of the color of their skin. This includes if that person is racially profiling them. If Trayvon had been calm and respectful despite Zimmerman’s suspicion, he would still be alive. Please, let’s admit that to ourselves as well.
    2) Bringing up the Henry Gates incident is ridiculous. Yes, he was arrested at his house. An officer responded to a call from a concerned neighbor. The officer arrived at the house, found the door open and a man inside, and asked for his ID, at which point Mr. Gates began getting belligerent. The officer was trying to do Prof. Gates a favor by keeping his house secure and Prof. Gates responds by assuming that there’s racism around every corner. Come on, people; please, again, let’s assume the best in people.
    3) Your comments about the jury would be considered “profiling” of women, wouldn’t you say? If you don’t want others profiled, have enough integrity to treat women with the same respect.
    4) Your stating that Americans think black men are aggressive, that Hispanics know how to drywall, and that Asian men are good at math is despicable. You might actually be shocked at how many people do NOT feel that way. People assume that racism is an issue because of cases like the Zimmerman trial. Zimmerman was hispanic, and the media wanted to turn it into a black vs white battle. Unfortunately, the succeeded and they should be ashamed.
    It all comes back to this point: Until we as a society begin to look for the good in people, we will not move forward. Instead of declaring all that is ugly and wrong with this great country, let’s see the media show the good that happens every day, and not just a 90 second segment at the end of an hour long broadcast.

  4. Gil Carter says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this! I need to thank Amy for referring me this way. Well thought through and balanced. I’m glad you waited to articulate this!

  5. Dorothy Ivey says:

    This is a great essay, Brandon, without an authoritative tone, but a humility of judgment and questioning. I AGREE with all of your searching words. I hope your darling little boy will not be subject to discriminations. I found when my children were growing up that it was hard to give them a good attitude to children of other races or ethnic groups, because other playmates were being taught differently and they would pass on their family attitudes. I would be teaching in their schools and have to erase (if I could) what they learned from other people. I wish you an effective voice in these coming years. I, too, have felt bad for the whole situation, totally an unnecessary death and confrontation.

  6. White Person says:

    Most Mexicans I know, can in fact hang drywall. There is nothing wrong with that. It was my job for awhile. The Asian steriotype fits most Asians in the US only. Zimmerman isn’t white. Thats the first thing I noticed about the whole trial. I wouldn’t ‘claim’ him as ‘one of us’ The biggest math/CS nerd I know is a 5 ft tall black man who wears penny loafers. I’ve been stumped by self checkout registers more than once. If those unfamiliar black men are color coordinated, there might actually be a legit reason for concern… Life is a mixed bag, and we look to these patterns to try to make sense of an inherently unjust world. I like the ‘new living translation of ECC 5:8 “Don’t be surprised if you see a poor person being oppressed by the powerful and if justice is being miscarried throughout the land. For every official is under orders from higher up, and matters of justice get lost in red tape and bureaucracy.” I think the reason this case even made it to the news at ALL is that it happened in a nice neighborhood.

  7. Having children does push us many unforeseen ways, doesn’t it. Thanks for wrestling these thoughts onto the page for us.

  8. Brandon says:

    Thanks, White Person (if that is your real name!). You’re right–there’s certainly nothing wrong with hispanics knowing how to hang drywall. Heck, I can hang drywall. The problem is assuming that’s all they know how to do. But I take your point. I hope I didn’t communicate that I buy the stereotypes. I’m just learning how to shake them.

  9. Brandon says:

    Thanks for reading, Gil! It’s nice to meet you.

  10. Michael White says:

    Brandon, I appreciate your honesty about our baggage concerning race. I wish we could have open honest discussions about this topic without the tension.

  11. Anthony Cook says:

    As a black male, I can honestly say that I did not follow the trial. I did not follow it because to me it was a man killing a child…it didn’t matter what color. A man killed a boy…bottom line. It bothers me and speaks to the lowest common denominator of society when people start throwing out the race card. With that being said, do I think he should have been acquitted…No…he initiated deadly force and killed someone.

    Brandon…I appreciate your willingness to be open about your feelings, but take it from someone who has been and continues to be stereotyped and profiled…I am just as nervous in elevators (with anyone) and I always have my head on a swivel in alleys. There are inherently bad people out there, no matter their color.

    As I look forward to raising my children, I often wonder how society will accept them and/or how they will deal with certain situations as the arise. I have come to the conclusion (and as always in life, it’s a work in progress):
    1. Raise your children to be confident in themselves, but to be respectful at the same time.
    2. Teach them right from wrong. For every action, right or wrong…there is a reaction. What’s done in the dark will come to the light.
    3. Teach them to understand that there are bad people in world, and if they feel uncomfortable keep on moving.
    4. Answer the hard questions, even if it makes you uncomfortable…you will be glad you did.
    5. Most importantly…you will make mistakes being a father, but is is how you react to those mistakes that your children will remember…so be the example of the type of person you want them to be.

    Keep up the good work!!

  12. Brandon says:

    Thanks, Anthony. These are great insights. I especially appreciate the reminder that being uncomfortable or fearful in strange places or around strange people is not limited to people of one race or gender. You’re right, too, that it’s important to be careful–there dangerous folks out there.

    I appreciate your parenting tips. You’re a few years down the road, since at least one of your kiddos is older. I’m always grateful for the perspective.

  13. Michelle Trybulec says:

    Hey Brandon. I hope you don’t mind me reading your post, which I commend for its honesty and evenhandedness. When you write that it’s time we all admit that race matters, it serves as a good reminder to me that not every one has had the luxury of being guided, at school or in the home, toward some of the most impactful writings on race issues in America (and abroad) over the last couple centuries. Obviously we have current events emphatically demonstrating how broken the system is. I personally appreciate being reminded of how it got broke to begin with and why some aspects remain intransigent today. I may be naive, but reading profound words from profound texts makes society and the people in it, myself included, seem to some extent redeemable in everyday life. And in honor of being so reminded, I came up with this list of those profound texts I remember most from school (in chronological order): Stowe’s _Uncle Tom’s Cabin_, Twain’s _Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_, Chesnutt’s _The Conjure Woman_, Faulkner’s _Light in August_, Hurston’s _Their Eyes Were Watching God_, Wright’s _Native Son_, Ellison’s _Invisible Man_, Baldwin’s _Notes of a Native Son_, Fanon’s _The Wretched of the Earth_, MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Baldwin’s _Going to Meet the Man_, Morrison’s _The Bluest Eye_, Walker’s _The Color Purple_.

    This list is obviously idiosyncratic to my educational experience and not at all comprehensive (I know I was supposed to read DuBois somewhere along the way…), but every one, especially in comparison to the rest, provides tremendous perspective on how we got here. Little good I’m doing with it–perhaps my opportunity would have been made better use by another more courageously in the middle of things, socially speaking. But at least you never know when someone else’s words will bring your own learning back to the fore. In short, reading is good. And being reminded you read, also good.

    Sincere good wishes for your crew.

    – Mickey

  14. Brandon says:

    Thanks for reading, Mickey. I appreciate this list. When things settle down here, I’m looking forward to reading a serious of historical works on the subject of slavery, race, migration, and civil rights. I’ll certainly supplement with books like these. (I read an article recently about how fiction activates a part of the brain that makes it possible for us to empathize with people who are unlike us. Of course, I read fiction anyway, because I like it!).

    I appreciate your input. I enjoy keeping up with some of your reading via your posts on Facebook.

  15. Michelle Trybulec says:

    It’s funny. I’ve been convinced for a long time now that it’s the other way around, with historical texts being the supplement. 😉

    I guess each approach has its limitations.

    I should note that _Notes of a Native Son_ and _The Wretched of the Earth_ are both nonfiction essay collections. And obviously MLK’s letter is the real deal.

    Another important selection would be _Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass_. Not sure how I forgot that one.

  16. Michelle Trybulec says:

    P.S. “[…] how fiction activates a part of the brain that makes it possible for us to empathize with people who are unlike us.”
    Interesting that it takes the findings and authority of science to convince people of this, isn’t it? A real SMH moment for fine authors past and present, perhaps.

  17. Brandon says:

    Good point. I’ve always valued fiction for the way it enables me to inhabit the lives of others (or “others”). It’s nice when brain research affirms my suspicions. :)

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