When I was maybe 9, I spent 10 days at a summer camp, and one of the friends I made there was a kid named Aziz. We hung out a lot, we talked about Run-DMC (this was 1986, so Raising Hell had just come out), and in general just did a lot of things 9-11 year olds do at summer camp together.
Camp ended, and the bus was dropping us off in a big parking lot where there were lots of parents waiting for us. I wanted Aziz to meet my parents; as soon as I even mentioned the possibility, he disappeared, and I never saw him again. I didn’t understand what happened, and I’m still not sure I do.
Obviously, given the generation I’m in, I grew up hearing stories from a lot of adults who lived through the ’60s and ’70s. By no means were all the adults who had formative presences in my life people who talked about the social developments of those decades in a positive manner; on the contrary, I got very different messages about that period from a number of people. Certainly, I heard from my public school teachers in particular about how amazing and wonderful and liberating everything was, and how during the ’60s America had finally started to take seriously the idea that it should provide liberty and justice for all, not merely the privileged few, and I heard about how much of a monster Nixon was, and how terrible Vietnam was, and how Reagan was running the country into the ground, and so on.
At the same time, I also heard from other adults in my life things like, “You can’t legislate love'”, variations on “the soft bigotry of low expectations”, how awesome Barry Goldwater and Nixon were, how Donna’s dad in La Bamba was being perfectly reasonable in not wanting her to go out with Ritchie Valens, and “If I didn’t hate black people before the Civil Rights Act, I sure as heck hated them afterward,” and that MLKjr was a “rabble-rouser”, and how the Kennedys were the real villains of the ’60s and ’70s, etc. There was one adult in particular who, as a small business owner, was adamant that nobody was ever going to tell him whom he was required to hire or what allowances he was going to make for them. “As a business owner, I will do what I judge to be in my best interests according to the market forces that already regulate my business. If I judge it’s in my best interests to hire minorities because they’re actually the best people for the job, I will do that. If I don’t, I won’t. How can it possibly be otherwise?” This person also tended to have a low opinion of whomever he judged to be “not following the law”. Things like civil disobedience, aggressive actions on the part of organized labor, and the like, were usually labeled in terms of “legitimized criminality”.
As a grown-up academic, obviously I’m exposed to a lot of critical theory about how race, gender, sexuality, economics, class, and any number of other categories are what drive our society’s current set of circumstances. As I’ve said before, I don’t really buy it; that’s not to discount them entirely as forces, but as was stressed to me last Wednesday during my dissertation proposal defense, forces and things aren’t agents. People are agents; they’re the ones who actually do things. And, much as Cleolinda Jones talks about her “People in Dracula don’t know they’re in Dracula” problem, I have a “People in real life don’t know they’re in a poststructuralist theoretical treatise” problem. Somehow you have to balance how you talk about people making choices and the forces that are involved when people make those choices. Otherwise, all critical theory does is take you out of an ostensibly Christian Calvinism and put you in a secular version, where your actions are largely predetermined by your race, your socio-economic status, what have you. How do you balance that? I don’t know. I remember a conversation I had with a friend once who said, “Conservatives place too much import on personal responsibility; liberals don’t give it enough.” This was a pretty liberal friend, so if even he had that dilemma, I don’t know how I can possibly answer the question.
That said, as a person (since it’s people who do things), I’m horrified by a lot of what I see. I’m horrified by how I see people treat each other, by our quickness to categorize another person as the enemy (usually because this person is perceived as having been equally quick to categorize somebody as the enemy), by our willingness to be ignorant, by our readiness to struggle to the death for the winning narrative — with each other. There’s a Syriac idiom whereby one expresses the idea of slander as “eating somebody’s pieces” — that is, the image seems to be of a carrion bird pecking away at somebody’s flesh. We all eat each other’s pieces on a daily, if not hourly, basis.
Where the death of Trayvon Martin is concerned, I can’t help but think about my friend from camp who was off like a shot as soon as I said, “Hey, you should meet my parents.” Clearly there was a situation there that he perceived, or assumptions he was making, even at age 9 or 10, that I had no way of understanding. Some adults I grew up with might say, “Well, his parents taught him to hate white people.” But is that the only way to see it? Were there signals I was sending unawares that he somehow figured would be amplified with the next generation back? I don’t know. In the case of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, Mr. Zimmerman seems to have made a number of assumptions about a person he knew nothing about — but can you disentangle those assumptions from race? Zimmerman himself is half-Jewish and half-Latino — is he “white”, per se, or is that simply that he’s “not black” and therefore functionally “white” for the purposes of evaluating the scenario?
I keep reading about how the Zimmerman verdict is the result of systemic racism in our legal system, that it’s evidence that our system fails to be impartial and in fact actively works against any notion of impartiality. Okay; let’s say that’s true. What, then, is the systemic fix? What are the things that people, since they’re the agents, need to do to fix the system? Or can it be fixed? What would that even mean or look like? Has the narrative of America’s corrupt, evil foundations ultimately won the day, here’s the proof, and the only real fix is demolishing what we have and starting over?
I have a lot more I could say, and maybe someday I will, but I’ll wrap this up for now by saying that in the end, even if certain aspects of the case don’t have the same kind of clarity for me that they do for others, my sympathies have to go to Trayvon Martin and his family, not Mr. Zimmerman. There’s a young man, a person made in the image of God, who will never make it home and his family will never know for certain why. That’s a tragedy that I must find completely unacceptable; memory eternal. What I hopefully can do as a person, as an agent, as a parent, is to teach my son to first and foremost see the image of God in every single other person, and to treat all people accordingly as precious. It’s ham-handed and corny-sounding, maybe, but I don’t have another way. Lord have mercy on all of us.