I am humbled by the responses to last week’s Musing. I asked for readers to participate in a conversation and you did. I truly appreciate the kind words from many of you and I am grateful for those who affirmed, gently chided, and wrote so passionately and eloquently. Race is an emotional topic and as a country (and a world) we need to feel comfortable speaking openly. I encourage you all to read the comments; it will be a good use of your time. (I have a culture gap admission to make here: the first comment which used the letters AA had me scratching my head trying to figure out what Alcoholics Anonymous had to do with the topic. It took a bit of pondering to realize that it stood for African American.)
Rather than quoting from and responding directly to your comments, I’d like to continue the dialogue. The word ‘profiling’ garners much bad press. Profiling has been used as a synonym for racism. But is it? When I am in a building and about to enter an elevator, I profile. When the doors open I look to see who is already in the elevator. Is it a woman rocking a baby carriage? I enter and her race doesn’t make a difference. Is it a couple dressed up for a night on the town? I enter, and their race doesn’t make a difference. Is it a young man? My mind races through more questions. How is he dressed? How do I read his body language? What city and type of building am I in? What time of day is it? And yes, what is his race? In the final analysis, with a split-second in which to make the decision, I go with my gut. One of the strongest pieces of advice women are given by police departments and self-defense experts is to hone and pay attention to their instincts. Those instincts are certainly shaped by one’s culture and past experiences.
I grew up in New York City. The local college I attended had signs on the women’s bathroom doors which discouraged going to the bathroom alone. I was taught to carry a purse in a manner that discouraged pickpocketing and to survey the occupants of a train car before entering. We called these tidbits ‘street smarts.’ And my peers and I were very aware that criminal behavior was not evenly distributed among all races, genders and ages. Serial murderers? White males. Muggers? Young black males. Pretending otherwise in the name of utopian daydreaming could cost you a great deal.
If I decide not to enter an elevator because a young, black teen in a hoodie with a scowl on his face would be my sole companion, I think it unfair to call me racist. I most likely would turn the same ride down if a white teen presenting himself in the same unpleasant way was there. But I admit that race is one of the factors involved in my decision. I also understand that rather than protecting myself from a criminal, I just might be causing pain to a young man who has just returned from visiting his mother in the hospital or from an all-night shift at a job. Even if my action is the same, the white teenager would not feel the same level of rejection. This is the real world.
I do not know what took place between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. Neither does anyone else. I do know that many in the media misreported, manipulated and slanted coverage to fulfill their own agendas. Every American citizen was harmed by this malfeasance. As more information comes out, after anger was stoked (leading to violent attacks on whites) and few are left paying attention, a different story than originally promoted is coming out. A Reuters piece included information which makes clear that depicting Zimmerman as racist is incendiary rather than factual. It also put the episode in context, quoting a neighborhood resident. “Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. I’m black, OK?” the woman said, declining to be identified because she anticipated backlash due to her race. She leaned in to look a reporter directly in the eyes. “There were black boys robbing houses in this neighborhood,” she said. “That’s why George was suspicious of Trayvon Martin.”
Trayvon’s death and George’s part in it are personal tragedies for their families. The race-hustling, hatred-filled responses expand that heartbreak. The policies which erode moral clarity and personal responsibility; the liberal attitudes which discourage strong two-parent families; and the failing public schools and programs which keep large groups trapped in the past, are national catastrophes.