Sunday, July 21, 2013

Time for Honesty

We were living in Wyoming when OJ Simpson drove his white Bronco through southern California in a televised police chase that riveted the country. I was a teenage girl more interested in music, theatre, and boys than in football, so I was clueless as to the identity of the panicked driver. My parents, however, were shocked. Most of America was shocked. Here was a likable football player, loved and respected by his peers and fans, who was being chased down and arrested for the murder of his ex-wife and her male companion. The whole country watched the case unfold in an age before the Internet explosion, before Twitter and Facebook, before everyone with a computer or cell phone believed they had to the right to publicly comment on a case about which they knew nothing. And I sat in chemistry in a classroom full of my white classmates as we watched in shock and awe at the "not guilty" verdict that was announced in real time. It didn't seem right. It didn't seem real. All the evidence pointed at OJ's guilt. But he was acquitted by a jury of his peers in a trial and verdict that highlighted the racial tensions that continued to divide the country at the end of the 20th century. Many whites bemoaned the failure of a justice system that allowed a seemingly guilty man go free. Many blacks celebrated OJ's acquittal as justice for hundreds of years of injustice at the hands of the US government.

Nearly 20 years later we are faced with another case that appears to once again highlight racial tensions in the US, but I believe that the coverage and reactions to this case have made the race discussion far too simple. Because America's issues with race are deep, so very deep, and far from simple. This was a news story that was initially driven by grieving parents fighting for justice, but it was hijacked by a news media eager for a story. And what a story it became.

To my white, Caucasian friends: I realize that many of you don't understand why this is such a big deal, and in the world most of us have grown up in, the idea that deep racial hatred, bigotry, and injustice still exists seems foreign. But it's not foreign to those who still experience it. And those who were behind the driving force that brought George Zimmerman to trial were part of a civil rights movement that was full of violence. These are individuals who cannot forget being forced away from protests by dogs and firehoses. They can't forget being arrested and watching their friends and family be arrested because they were fighting for their constitutional rights. They were told stories in their childhoods about family members who were slaves and denied basic human rights. The Civil War (and slavery) ended 148 years ago, but that didn't end injustice. That didn't end the killing. That didn't end the abuse. For eight years of my childhood I lived an interracial experience in a city that was destroyed by the race riots of the 60s. Detroit never fully recovered. People have tried. People are still trying. I can see that from childhood friends that make their own Facebook posts about the changes being made in the Motor City. But it has a long road ahead of it. We whites like to believe we live in a "post-racial" society. We've grown up more enlightened than our grandparents and great-grandparents. We see interracial couples and wonder why people are making such a fuss about a Cheerios commercial. We have friends of different races and are sure to point it out. We rail against social injustice. We vote for a black president (or just accept him as our president after "our" guy lost) and proclaim it as progress. And yes, we've come a LONG way folks. But racism and injustice still exists. And it is that history that has many African-Americans, young and old, up in arms about the "not guilty" verdict passed down a week ago.

But my black friends, you are not off of the hook. This is going to sound harsh, but here it is. The people of African descent in this country do not hold a monopoly on discrimination, pain, and suffering caused by white America and the primarily white US government. During the 18th and 19th century, while black slaves were suffering at the hands of their owners and then trying to find a place for themselves after the Civil War, the US government was committing genocide (yeah, I said it, genocide) against the Native American people for the right to gain land for colonization and then westward expansion. The Chinese suffered at the hands of Big Business and the railroad as thousands were abused in the building of the railroad that stretched out west. Japanese citizens were imprisoned by their own government during WWII in an effort to "protect" the rest of the country from supposed espionage. A boat of Jewish refuges were sent back to Nazi Germany by the US government, most of them then dying in concentration camps, because we didn't want to take in more Jews than necessary. Arab Americans were arrested and held under suspicion everywhere they went, especially in airports, because of the actions of Muslim terrorists. Slavery was awful. Slavery was inexcusable. The abuses suffered by millions of black slaves for two hundred plus years are something that we continue to answer for. In many ways, the South is still recovering 148 years after slavery was done. Nothing can make up for that. But maybe it is time to start finding some way to move on. The problem is when someone tries to have an honest discussion in attempts to move on, they get blasted from all sides. Just ask Brad Paisley and L.L. Cool J.

Only two people REALLY know what happened the night Trayvon Martin was killed. One of them is dead and the other claims self defense. The teacher in me grieves for the loss of a teenager whose life was cut too short. The parent in me grieves with parents who lost their son way too soon. The truth is that Trayvon's parents reacted the way any reasonable grieving parents would. They fought to have their son's killer caught and arrested and they did everything they could to get him convicted. But it wasn't enough. The verdict wasn't about race, it was about reasonable doubt, and George Zimmerman's peers, who were sequestered from the media circus that the rest of us were subjected to, determined that they didn't have enough evidence to say that he shot in cold blood. Is it possible that Trayvon was a victim of racial profiling? Yep, absolutely, but George Zimmerman wasn't on trial for that; he was on trial for murder. And I would say that Trayvon's parents have an excellent case for a civil suit, especially if they start with the fact that if George Zimmerman had just listened to the 911 operator in the first place and stayed in his car, he might not be a household name and Trayvon's parents might still have their son. And for those of you who say racial profiling doesn't happen anymore, I beg to differ. I have a young woman from one of my AP classes last year who would beg to differ. Bright with a great future in front of her, this young woman stood up in a class full of white peers and talked about being profiled when she hangs out at the mall and other public places with her white friends. It happens, and unless we all become like Stephen Colbert who claims to not see race, it will continue to happen. We can just hope that it doesn't lead to another Trayvon Martin.

Race issues in America are far more complex than just black and white. Unfortunately, in this country (and I could probably argue in most countries worldwide) we discriminate against anyone who looks or sounds different from us. If we're really going to fix the issues between races in America it is time to start practicing a new type of Orwellian doublethink. We need to continue to hold on to our individual heritages and celebrate those differences while at the same time seeing each other as all belonging to the same group: the human race.

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