You remember, forever and forever, that moment when you first discover the cruelties and injustices of the world, and having been ill-prepared for them, your heart breaks open.
I mean really discover them, and for yourself; not because someone else told you to see the elephant standing, gigantic and unrelenting in the middle of your room, but because you saw him, and now you know he’s there, and will never go away until you attack him, and with a vengeance.
Last night, and I am writing it down so that I will not forget — because I already know she will not — my oldest daughter, who attained the age of 12 only eleven days ago, became an American. Not in the legal sense. She was already that, born here, and — as a white child in a nation set up for people just like her — fully entitled to all the rights and privileges thereof, without much question or drama. But now she is American in the fullest and most horrible sense of that word, by which I mean she has been truly introduced to the workings of the system of which she is both a part, and, at the same time, merely an inheritor. A system that fails — with a near-unanimity almost incomprehensible to behold — to render justice to black peoples, the family of Trayvon Martin being only the latest battered by the machinations of American justice, but with all certainty not the last.
To watch her crumble, eyes swollen with tears too salty, too voluminous for her daddy to wipe away? Well now that is but the latest of my heartbreaks; to have to hold her, and tell her that everything will be OK, and to hear her respond, “No it won’t be!” Because see, even though she learned last night about injustice and even more than she knew before about the racial fault lines that divide her nation, she is still a bit too young to fully comprehend the notion of the marathon, as opposed to the sprint; to understand that this is a very long race, indeed that even 26.2 miles is but a crawl in the long distance struggle for justice. And that if she is as bothered by what she sees as it appears, well now she will have to put on some incredibly strong running shoes, because this, my dear, is the work.
This is why daddy does what he does. Now you know.
And yes, I am fully aware that there are still those who would admonish me for even suggesting this case was about race. Not just the defenders of George Zimmerman, with whom I shall deal in a moment, but even the state, whose prosecutors de-racialized this case to a point that frankly was as troubling as anything the defense tried to do. Maybe more. I mean, the defense’s job is to represent their client, and I cannot fault them for having done so successfully. But the prosecution’s job is to make it clear to the jury what the defendant did and preferably why he did it. By agreeing to a fundamentally colorblind, “this isn’t about race,” narrative, they gave away the best part of their arsenal before the war had really started.
Because anyone who still believes that this case had nothing to do with race — or worse, that it was simply a tragedy, the racial meaning of which was concocted by those whom they love to term “race hustlers” — are suffering from a delusion so profound as to call into question their capacities for rational thought. And yet still, let us try to reason with them for a second, as if they were capable of hearing it. Let’s do that for the sake of rational thought itself, as a thing we still believe in; and for our country, which some of us still believe — against all evidence — is capable of doing justice and living up to its promises. In short, let’s give this one more shot.
Those who deny the racial angle to the killing of Trayvon Martin can only do so by a willful ignorance, a carefully cultivated denial of every logical, obvious piece of evidence before them, and by erasing from their minds — if indeed they ever had anything in there to erase — the entire history of American criminal justice, the criminal suspicion regularly attached to black men, and the inevitable results whenever black men pay for these suspicions with their lives. They must choose to leave the dots unconnected between, for instance, Martin on the one hand, and then on the other, Amadou Diallo or Sean Bell or Patrick Dorismond, or any of a number of other black men whose names — were I to list them — would take up page after page, and whose names wouldn’t mean shit to most white people even if I did list them, and that is the problem.
Oh sure, I’ve heard it all before. George Zimmerman didn’t follow Trayvon Martin because Martin was black; he followed him because he thought he might be a criminal. Yes precious, I get that. But what you don’t get — and by not getting it while still managing to somehow hold down a job and feed yourself, scare the shit out of me — is far more important. Namely, if the presumption of criminality that Zimmerman attached to Martin was so attached because the latter was black — and would not have been similarly attached to him had he been white — then the charge of racial bias and profiling is entirely appropriate.
And surely we cannot deny that the presumption of criminality was dependent on this dead child’s race can we? Before you answer, please note that even the defense did not deny this. Indeed, Zimmerman’s attorneys acknowledged in court that their client’s concerns about Martin were connected directly to the fact that previous break-ins in the neighborhood had been committed by young black males.
This is why it matters that George Zimmerman justified his following of Martin because as he put it, “these fucking punks” always get away. In other words, Zimmerman saw Martin as just another “fucking punk” up to no good, similar to those who had committed previous break-ins in the community. But why? What behavior did Martin display that would have suggested he was criminally inclined? Zimmerman’s team could produce nothing to indicate anything particularly suspicious about Martin’s actions that night. According to Zimmerman, Martin was walking in the rain, “looking around,” or “looking around at the houses.” But not looking in windows, or jiggling doorknobs or porch screens, or anything that might have suggested a possible burglar. At no point was any evidence presented by the defense to justify their client’s suspicions. All we know is that Zimmerman saw Martin and concluded that he was just like those other criminals. And to the extent there was nothing in Martin’s actions — talking on the telephone and walking slowly home from the store — that would have indicated he was another of those “fucking punks,” the only possible explanation as to why George Zimmerman would have seen him that way is because Martin, as a young black male was presumed to be a likely criminal, and for no other reason, ultimately, but color.
Which is to say, Trayvon Martin is dead because he is black and because George Zimmerman can’t differentiate — and didn’t see the need to — between criminal and non-criminal black people. Which is to say, George Zimmerman is a racist. Because if you cannot differentiate between black criminals and just plain kids, and don’t even see the need to try, apparently, you are a racist. I don’t care what your Peruvian mother says, or her white husband who married the Peruvian mother, or your brother, or your black friends, or the black girl you took to prom, or the black kids you mentored. If you see a black child and assume “criminal,” despite no behavioral evidence at all to suggest such a conclusion, you are a racist. No exceptions. That goes for George Zimmerman and for anyone reading this.
And here’s the thing: even in the evidentiary light most favorable to George Zimmerman this would remain true. Because even if we believe, as the jury did, that Zimmerman acted in self-defense, there can be no question that were it not for George Zimmerman’s unfounded and racially-biased suspicions that evening, Trayvon Martin would be alive, and Zimmerman would be an entirely anonymous, pathetic wanna-be lawman, about whom no one would much care. It was he who initiated the drama that night. And even if you believe that Trayvon Martin attacked Zimmerman after being followed by him, that doesn’t change.
But apparently that moral and existential truth matters little to this jury or to the white reactionaries so quick to praise their decision. To them, the fact that Martin might well have had reason to fear Zimmerman that night, might have thought he was standing his ground, confronted by someone who himself was “up to no good” is irrelevant. They are saying that black people who fight back against someone they think is creepy and who is following them, and might intend to harm them, are more responsible for their deaths than those who ultimately kill them. What they have said, and make no mistake about it, is that any white person who wants to kill a black person can follow one, confront them, maybe even provoke them; and as soon as that black person perhaps takes a swing at them, or lunges at them, the white pursuer can pull their weapon, fire, and reasonably assume that they will get away with this act. I can start drama, and if you respond to the drama I created, you are to blame, not me.
But we know, if we are remotely awake, that this same logic would never be used to protect a black person accused of such an act. Let’s travel back to 1984 shall we, and hypothetically apply this logic to the Bernhard Goetz case in a little thought experiment so as to illustrate the point.
Goetz, as you’ll recall, was the white man who, afraid of young black men because he had been previously mugged, decided to shoot several such youth on a subway. They had not threatened him. They had asked him for money, and apparently teased him a bit. But at no point did they threaten him. Nonetheless, he drew his weapon and fired several rounds into them, even (according to his own initial account, later recanted), shooting a second time at one of the young men, after saying, “You don’t look so bad, here, have another.”
Goetz, predictably, was seen as a hero by the majority of the nation’s whites, if polls and anecdotal evidence are to be believed. He was a Dirty Harry-like vigilante, fighting back against crime, and more to the point, black crime. Ultimately he too would successfully plead self-defense and face conviction only on a minor weapons charge.
But let us pretend for a second that after Goetz pulled his weapon and began to fire at the young men on that subway, one of them had perhaps pulled his own firearm. Now as it turns out none of the boys had one, but let’s just pretend. And let’s say that one of them pulled a weapon precisely because, after all, he and his friends were being fired upon and so, fearing for his life, he opted to defend himself against this deranged gunman. And let’s pretend that the young man managed to hit Goetz, perhaps paralyzing him as Goetz did, in fact, to one of his victims. Does anyone seriously believe that that young black man would have been able to press a successful self-defense claim in court the way Goetz ultimately did? Or in the court of white public opinion the way Zimmerman has? If you would answer yes to this question you are either engaged in an act of self-delusion so profound as to defy imagination, or you are so deeply committed to fooling others as to make you truly dangerous.
But we are not fooled.
We don’t even have to travel back thirty years to the Goetz case to make the point, in fact. We can stay here, with this case. If everything about that night in Sanford had been the same, but Martin, fearing this stranger following him — the latter not identifying himself at any point as Neighborhood Watch — had pulled a weapon and shot George Zimmerman out of a genuine fear that he was going to be harmed (and even if Zimmerman had confronted him in a way so as to make that fear more than speculative), would the claim of self-defense have rung true for those who are so convinced by it in this case? Would this jury have likely concluded that Trayvon had had a right to defend himself against the perceived violent intentions of George Zimmerman?
Oh, and would it have taken so long for Martin to be arrested in the first place, had he been the shooter? Would he have been granted bail? Would he have been given the benefit of the doubt the way Zimmerman was by virtually every white conservative in America of note? And remember, those white folks were rushing to proclaim the shooting of Martin justified even before there had been any claim made by Zimmerman that Trayvon had attacked him. Before anyone had heard Zimmerman’s version of the story, much of white America, and virtually its entire right flank had already decided that Martin must have been up to no good because he wore a hoodie (in the rain, imagine), and was tall (actually according to the coroner he was 5’11″ not 6’2″ or 6’4″ as some have claimed), and that because of those previous break-ins, Zimmerman had every right to confront him.
No, Martin-as-shooter would never have benefitted from these public pronouncements of innocence the way Zimmerman did.
Because apparently black people don’t have a right to defend themselves. Which is why Marissa Alexander, a woman who had suffered violence at the hands of her husband (by his own admission in fact), was recently sentenced to 20 years in prison after firing a warning shot into a wall when she felt he was about to yet again harm her.
And so it continues. Year after year and case after case it continues, with black life viewed as expendable in the service of white fear, with black males in particular (but many a black female as well and plenty of Latino folk too) marked as problems to be solved, rather than as children to be nurtured. And tonight, their parents will hold them and try to assure them that everything is going to be OK, even as they will have to worry again tomorrow that their black or brown child may represent the physical embodiment of white anxiety, and pay the ultimate price for that fact, either at the hands of a random loser with a law enforcement jones, or an actual cop doing the bidding of the state. In short, they will hold their children and lie to them, at least a little — and to themselves — because who doesn’t want their child to believe that everything will be alright?
But in calmer moments these parents of color will also tell their children the truth. That in fact everything is not going to be OK, unless we make it so. That justice is not an act of wish fulfillment but the product of resistance. Because black parents know these things like they know their names, and as a matter of survival they make sure their children know them too.
And if their children have to know them, then mine must know them as well.
And now they do.
If their children are to be allowed no innocence free from these concerns, then so too must mine sacrifice some of their naiveté upon the altar of truth.
And now they have.
So to the keepers of white supremacy, I should offer this final word. You can think of it as a word of caution. My oldest daughter knows who you are and saw what you did. You have made a new enemy. One day, you might wish you hadn’t.
Tim Wise is author of many books, including his most recent, DEAR WHITE AMERICA: LETTER TO A NEW MINORITY published by City Lights. Cornel West calls Wise “A vanilla brother in the tradition of (antiracism and antislavery fighter) John Brown.”