Is This A Turning Point?

Even though it has been over two weeks since the jury acquitted George Zimmerman of second degree murder and manslaughter in the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida, the discussion about the trial continues in a variety of ways.

I do not intend to discuss the pros and cons of the trial process or what the jurors subsequently said of their deliberations or any of the legal issues at stake.  The bottom line (or lines) remains the same.  A young man is needlessly dead.  The trial was, by all accounts, fair and conducted in a professional manner.  The verdict stands.  Two families’ lives have been changed forever.

What I initially struggled to understand was the role that race may or may not have played in the emotional reactions that followed the trial.  Followers on both sides were passionate in their reactions, but clearly this touched a raw nerve in the African-American community.  And I didn’t quite get it.  I got that some people disagreed with the verdict and thought (rightly or wrongly) that Mr. Zimmerman “got away with murder.”  That would definitely create an impassioned reaction.  But the intense reactions across nearly the entire political and socio-economic spectrum of African-Americans told me that there was more to it than that.

What helped me to understand why the African-American community saw this as one more time that the justice system let them down came from an unlikely source — the President of the United States.  President Obama’s unexpected remarks at the White House on 19 July was my “now I get it” moment.  I thought his remarks were fair — he didn’t question the trial or its outcome — and helped to put into perspective what many African-Americans experience in their daily lives and, as he said, the context within which those reactions are formed.  In my view, he did it in a facts-of-life kind of way without placing direct blame on one portion of America or another.  He also acknowledged that statistics show that young black males are more likely to have some contact with law enforcement, sometimes due to their own actions, but also sometimes because of where they happen to be or who happens to see them.

So back to the question at hand — is this a turning point in the discussion about race in our country?  Can we move forward from this and have a real discussion about the causes of the intense feelings on both sides of the issues?  Actually talk and more importantly, listen and see where common ground exists?  The answer:  a weak “I don’t know.”  I’m not particularly convinced that this will be a turning point — or at least a turning point where anything dramatically changes.  Things are changing — as the President and others rightly pointed out — and changing for the good of all Americans.  But that doesn’t mean that the work is finished.

Discrimination in this country exists.  It is unreasonable to pretend that it doesn’t.  Everyone of us likely has  been discriminated against at one time or another — it’s basic.  Life isn’t fair.  It may have been racial discrimination, or gender based discrimination, or maybe based on religion, or perhaps our social or economic status.  It happens.  It doesn’t make it right — it just is.  And that may be where some of us come from when we claim that other groups are “playing the race card” or are being “politically correct” or “over reacting” or whatever.  We think we know what’s going on because of our own experiences.  But to state the obvious, we don’t know unless we’ve lived it.  As someone close to me pointed out, subtle discrimination plays out in quiet and perhaps even (sometimes) unconscious ways.  The problem is not necessarily what happens or who it happens to, it is a matter of the frequency that an individual experiences discriminatory behavior.  How is it conveyed that they are “not one of us?”  This, I believe, is the point of the President’s remarks, the “context” that he talked about.  It’s not that it happened to him, it’s that it happened a lot and over and over.  It was a fact of daily life and it altered his (and others) behavior in ways that most of us have never experienced.

And now I get it.  Or at least I get it a little bit more.