The Trayvon Martin Verdict: How Should Middle Class White Men Respond?

 I spent my high school years in a small town in South Carolina..  It was, as most small southern U.S. towns are, predominately white.  Less than 10% of my school were non-whites, consisting of Blacks and Hispanics.

            There is a small community roughly 15 minutes or so from that high school that is named Little Africa.  As you might guess, the vast majority of residents in the community are African-American.  One of my good friends from high school lived in what is affectionately referred to as “L.A.”.  I can remember driving there to visit him and getting looks from people in the community that told me I was a rare occurrence.  I didn’t think much of it then, but now looking back I think that must be what it’s like for far too many black people in the South. 

            Imagine getting looks everywhere you go like perhaps you don’t belong.  As if you were an outsider who didn’t pay their admission fee to come into our neighborhood or business.

            I don’t want to sit here and pretend that I know all the details of the Trayvon Martin story.  I don’t have cable, so thankfully I wasn’t inundated with insane around the clock coverage by dozens of news channels.  I don’t know if justice was served or not.  I do know this: an unarmed black teenager was shot by a middle-class white man.  That fact alone makes me cringe.

            Reactors to the verdict have been swift to rush to opposing corners.  One side simmering with anger, wondering how what appeared to be such an open-and-shut case could turn to injustice, the other explaining it all away with conservative news pieces of other cases where the justice was flip-flopped, the opposing skin color getting away with the crime.

            It makes my head hurt, because we all tend to immediately enter defensive mode, and it’s based strictly on our skin color.  Us white guys are a lucky bunch.  For over 200 years, we’ve run the country.  We’ve been the vast majority of presidents and congressmen, businessmen and CEOs, and judges and cops.  For us to even remotely pretend we have a sliver of a clue as to how it must be to walk in a black person’s shoes is akin to lying to ourselves.  Unless we’ve ventured overseas, most of us have no clue what it feels like to be a minority.

            So how should we react the Zimmerman verdict?  First, with empathy.  Many of us middle-class white men have kids.  Can you imagine what it’s like to lose a child from a gunshot?  We’ve got to be the ones who mourn, regardless of our feelings on the trial, because we on some level as parents can relate.  We love our kids, and would be devastated to lose them.

            Secondly, let’s stop trying to pour gallons of gasoline on a bonfire.  I’ve seen people on Facebook as a reaction to those incensed by the Zimmerman verdict post pictures of O.J. Simpson, almost as if to say to the black community “your guy was guilty and got off the hook, so why are you making a big deal about George Zimmerman?”  Are we really going to react like this?    There were no winners in this trial.  Why do we feel the need to fight the battle still?  Lashing out against those who feel Trayvon Martin was served a great injustice seems not just petty, but downright hurtful. 

            Thirdly, let’s have conversations.  Real conversations.  Let’s confess that often times as white men we do have a skewed perspective on race.  That we cannot really understand what life is like for a black person, even in the progressive 21st century.  Just think: what if you were part of a group of people that were oppressed for centuries?  How would you feel then?  We need to search our own hearts for our prejudices, seeking out ways to change anything we say or do that could be harmful to someone of a different race or nationality.

            A former boss of mine was an older black man who was friendlier than just about anyone you’d ever meet.  One day I asked him about how life was for him when he was younger.  He told me he had to walk several blocks to school as a child even though there was a school right next to his house.  The problem was that was the whites only school, and the black only school was blocks away from where he lived.   But he told me he wasn’t angry.  He looks back now and knows that’s just how things were. 

            We have certainly come a long way since then.  But there are still walls that are decades old that we need to take a sledgehammer of love and understanding to and break down.  It starts with us, the middle-class white men, who hold more power than we realize.  It starts with us teaching our little ones that we are all equal.  It starts with us ending the petty back and forth just to get our own point across.  It starts with us knowing God created all of us, and every detail including the color of our skin was his grand design. 

            My two little girls have yet to see a person of a different skin color and react differently towards them.  I’m proud of them for that.  They love every other kid as kids tend to do.  I know the day will come when they’ll ask why their skin color is different from some other children’s skin color.  When that happens I can’t wait to teach them about Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Jackie Robinson.  Mostly I can’t wait to continue teaching them about God and His love for everyone, regardless of their skin color.