It’s taken me a long time to accept this, but the truth is
there’s nothing I do or say that some of my neighbors won’t
receive in a negative way or interpret in a negative light.
They don't understand me. They're not trying to understand me.
They don't know my story and they've never seemed interested in
knowing anything at all about me beyond what might be available
on a sex offender registry or a criminal records search. So much so that,
after a decade of trying, I’ve just given up. I no longer make
any effort to know or be involved with these people. Hi and bye.
Which is alien to me, almost intolerable. It's not my way, not
my behavior. During snow emergencies, I've gone door-to-door
checking on the seniors, Are you okay? Do you need anything?
I used to routinely shovel their walks, offer to help with
whatever they were doing. And there'd be this grace period where
we'd all sort of get along, and then something--seemingly,
anything--would happen, some incident, some behavior, and these
same people I'd invested time and energy caring for would
immediately, without hesitation, presume my part in whatever
episode may be was somehow evil if not criminal. And it finally
wore me down, this pattern of now I'm your neighbor, now I'm a
suspect. Thirteen years and I am still not trusted, still looked
upon with suspicion, and these people still, in an eye blink,
think the worst of me, to comical extremes like a Seinfeld
episode, like I've been waiting more than a decade to hatch my
evil plan. He took Harry's pen.
Ordinarily, I'd say these people are lunatics. But they're not. They're not crazy, they're not even evil. They're just people, mostly older people, who don't do change well. Despite more than a decade of my presence, I still represent change. I am still associated with whatever negative experiences they've had with black people, despite the fact I've never once done anyone here any harm. That I am quiet and, frankly, fairly invisible. The moment I poke my head out the door, somebody around here is accusing me of something, usually something ridiculous.
My liberal white friends think racism is rednecks in white hoods. Racism is some of my neighbors always assuming the worst about me while never, and I mean not once, asking my side of any dispute. They don’t talk to me, they talk to each other, come to their conclusions about what I’m about or why I put my trash can over there instead of over there, and govern themselves accordingly. Some have amassed a long list of perceived slights and neighborhood crimes I've committed, a long history of bad behavior on my part that is largely a product of their paranoia because they literally do not talk to me. They don't have the first clue about who I am or why I do (or don't do) anything. They don’t see their process as racism, but they also don’t stop to note there’s no one else on the block who's earned that level of scrutiny.
Racism in today's America is rarely about white hoods. That kind of racism is easy to see and to target, and most every white person I know—even the most obviously bigoted—deplores the extremist types. That denunciation of overt racism forms the basis of our self-image: I’m not racist, I hate the KKK. But racism isn’t about the KKK. It’s about not talking to me. It’s about comforting and encouraging a white youth who rode his skateboard two blocks over to threaten me with violence. Now, this lady down the street didn’t know this kid threatened me and that his threat was the reason I called the sheriff; she just saw I’d called the sheriff and assumed I was harassing this fine young man. Now, if this white kid had put his hands on me and I’d shot him, would I be acquitted like George Zimmerman? I’ve lived near this woman for thirteen years. Did she stop, for even ten seconds, to even wonder what was going on or why I’d call the sheriff on this kid? No, she just assumed the worst; that I, for some psychotic reason, chose to harass some teenager I'd never seen before in my life, who came onto my street and approached me but somehow I was bothering him. And she embraced the teen, part of a pack of wannabes around the corner who hang out, smoke dope, drive unlicensed, unregistered vehicles at 70 mph through the subdivision, get drunk and shoot pistols in the middle of the night, and then began screaming at me—as is her practice—from the safety of her front yard, “Why don’t you just move! Just MOVE!!”
If I called that behavior racism, the neighbors would be up in arms. But this is what actual racism is: the kind of irrationality that rationalizes unreasonable behavior. It is, after a fact, an act of violence, screaming at me, standing in the street screaming at my house. Why don't you just MOVE! It's hatred, and this from a woman who claims to be a Christian while loudly claiming I am not. I am determined to show this woman, and those like her, love and forgiveness, as Jesus loved and forgave me. If they are reading this, I'm sure my simply writing about their behavior will enrage them and then the denials, I don't do that! Yes, yes you do. No one is hitting me. No one is shooting me like Trayvon. But theirs are, nonetheless, acts of violence. True racism flies well under the radar of otherwise good people who behave in irrational ways when it comes to persons of color. Like a computer virus, it infects everything they are and everything they do, but goes completely unnoticed by them. They get highly insulted by anyone pointing out their irrational behavior fits the pattern of a racist. They go on offense, becoming ever more blatantly racist in their virulent defense of their racist behavior.
For me, the lesson of Trayvon Martin is George Zimmerman’s adamant refusal to admit his own tribal predisposition toward racism. We all have it, myself included. Anyone who says he doesn’t is a liar; someone completely lost in the snow globe of their self-deception. I wouldn’t hate George Zimmerman if he admitted his racism; I’d think he was just like everybody else. The people on my street who interpret everything I do in the most negative way possible are just George Zimmermans waiting to happen. On some level I am convinced my life will end when some lunatic with a gun—everyone in Colorado has a gun—shoots me not for something I’ve done but, like Trayvon Martin, for something they assumed I was up to. Trayvon Martin was walking home, and George Zimmerman interpreted that as a criminal act which justified his stalking an unarmed teenager with a loaded gun. I could be out watering my lawn and there are people on this street who would interpret that as a hostile act toward them. I give up. Hi and bye. That’s it.
It’s not the hatred or even the persecution, it’s the denial that is so dangerous. It’s the lunatic judge who barred any mention of race from the trial. What planet does this judge live on? It’s the inexplicable jury, five out of six of whom were white women with no possible means of understanding who Trayvon Martin was. It was the now-clearly racist “stand your ground” law that protects Zimmerman while missing the point it was Trayvon Martin who was being threatened and Trayvon Martin who chose to stand his ground. And these clueless white women convicted Martin of assaulting Zimmerman while letting Zimmerman free for murdering Martin. That is racism. That is the institutionalized evil that devalues a black life. Why couldn’t Marissa Alexander stand her ground? She didn’t shoot her abusive husband, but shot a ceiling, and was given twenty years—it seems inexplicable—in prison. Why is there a different standard for a black woman who fired a warning shot than for Zimmerman who fired into the heart of a 17-year old child?
I really didn’t want to talk about this this week, but this is all anyone’s been talking about. Even the president has been shoved off of the headlines in the wake of the disastrous, sad, illogical verdict of perhaps the most idiotic, clueless jury in human history. On one hand, though, I can say that now I know how White America felt after the OJ verdict. White America has
castigated the OJ jury for letting an obviously guilty man go
free while missing the point that, by the letter of the law, the
had to acquit Simpson because the evidence had obviously been
tampered with and the lead investigator, Mark Furhman, was
caught in a lie. The standard is, if there is reasonable doubt,
the defendant must be excused.
The same was true of Zimmerman. It really wasn’t the jury’s fault so much as the prosecution’s failure to remove doubt. The judge omitting the dozens of 911 calls Zimmerman made previously, all of them false alarms about black men and teens. The judge insisting no mention of race be allowed, even though this case was all about race and race formed the basis of Trayvon Martin’s life experience and speaks directly to explaining his motivation. Much like the majority of jurors, the judge was a white woman whom I sincerely doubt could identify in any appreciable way with Trayvon Martin. Judge Debra Nelson laid out an even playing field that exists only in the minds of white people. There is no even playing field in America. It is unrealistic and extremely anti-intellectual to presume such, There is this guy’s experience and that guy’s experience. Only a fictional baseline life experience—belonging to neither party—was allowed in that courtroom, which pretty much acquitted Zimmerman before the trial even began. Given the hand they were dealt, following the judge’s instructions and letter of the law, that jury was left with little choice but to acquit.
The acquittal of George Zimmerman was a punch in the face to every African American, to every person of color, in the United States. What small hope the OJ verdict gave black America that justice can be bought by anyone, regardless of color, was dashed by the Zimmerman verdict, which inexplicably and shockingly made it all right for an obvious racist to stalk the target of his ire with a loaded gun, provoke a fight, then shoot him dead. That’s the message, sent to and received by Black America: We Don’t Count. Most people legally carrying concealed weapons are whites. Most of them are paranoid types like the lady down yonder who screams at me for no reason. There simply is no justice in this country for black people, period. We’ve known this all along, yet OJ gave us hope. Black America was not high-fiving because we thought OJ was innocent. That celebration had much less to do with whether or not he was innocent, which was rather besides the point. The elation among African America was that, for once, the criminal justice system worked the way it claims it does, that a black man was found to be equal under the law, The evidence was tampered with, Furhman lied: that was proven beyond a reasonable doubt, which created reasonable doubt about OJ, which, like it or not, required his acquittal. That event was a punch in the face to White America. Zimmerman was ours. We should not blame the jury or, even the system. We should blame ourselves for laying on the sofa in 2010 and not bothering to vote, which allowed the lunatic fringe to vote in a virtual army of crazies to state and federal offices. This is the crowd that passed these so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws. We’re mad about it, but where were you on election day, 2010? In ’08, we had record black turnout. In 2010, we stayed home, the paranoid old folk and freaks came out, and it’s been gridlock and chaos in Washington ever since. Who did that? We did.
Now we’re all pissed off about Trayvon. But we’re too stupid or too lazy to connect the dots between our own failure to be responsible and the breadcrumbs leading to that tragedy. “Stand Your Ground” exists because we couldn’t be bothered in November, 2010. Because we let the lunatics win. “Stand Your Ground” is a lunatic law. George Zimmerman is a lunatic. And now he’s back on the street, with his gun, looking for the next Trayvon.
Racism is tribal. It’s in the genes. It’s not going anywhere, but can only be bred out of successive generations. We have a long road ahead for the fringe to die out and for their kids, or perhaps their great-great-grandkids to stand up and lead. Every black man, woman and child in America knows What Really Happened that night in April. The Zimmerman judge barred culture at the door, ignorantly missing the point that even a lack of culture is, in fact, a culture. She obviously sought to normalize the proceedings by barring any discussion of race. She, like far too many liberal whites—both friend and foe—failed to realize that barring the discussion takes substantial evidence—both for and against Zimmerman—off the table. She committed the proceeding to be seen only in the light of White Middle Class America, the American Gothic which is considered the benchmark norm. But, as I point out in this essay, that norm does not exist and hasn’t existed for a long time. We, all of us, white and black, keep pretending it exists and that it is out baseline standard for defining “normal.” It’s not. And, by insisting only white culture be allowed in her courtroom, this judge slanted the trial in Zimmerman’s favor.
Like some of my neighbors, she’ll never see or understand that concept. She has no idea and accepts no responsibility for the reality that Black America has now lost significant faith in the criminal justice system. We know, walking through those doors, that who we are and what motivates us as human beings is unwelcome and that justice, which is supposed to be blind, most certainly is not. “Fucking coons…” Zimmerman muttered under his breath, captured on a 911 tape. But race was not allowed. Racism is apparently allowed everywhere but in America's courtrooms, where it is evidently and empirically denied to exist.
Christopher J. Priest
21 July 2013
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