By Tom Ehrich
My initial reaction to the acquittal of white Florida resident George Zimmerman in the killing of an unarmed black teenager named Trayvon Martin was dismay.
How could such a killing happen and no one be held accountable? This wasn’t self-defense in the usual sense of the word. This wasn’t an accidental killing, but intentional action born in the fearful imagination of Zimmerman.
I wondered how differently this entire situation — from action by an armed neighborhood watch volunteer to a court case to a verdict — would have played out if the races had been reversed.
As I read more, my dismay deepened. Florida’s “stand your ground law” seems bizarre and ominous. It sets the stage for armed vigilante violence wherever people are afraid — which, as we know, is pretty much everywhere.
The prosecution’s lame case confused me. Would they have been so half-hearted in their prosecution if the defendant were black? It saddens me even to be asking such a question. But in a city — New York — where police routinely hassle black men for “walking while black,” Lady Justice doesn’t seem so even-handed.
I had sympathy for the jury. In view of the weak prosecution and the Florida law, what other verdict could they have rendered? It was encouraging that people upset with the verdict didn’t call for jury members’ heads.
As reactions have cascaded, ranging from almost-violent protests against the verdict to shouts of triumph from racists to President Obama’s insights into being a black man, I hear the reality that, after all this time, race is still explosive in America.
It’s the subject we can’t ever address thoroughly, with sufficient understanding to acknowledge each other’s experiences and with a desire to do whatever it takes to find better ground. Race just simmers, explodes, gets buried again, simmers, boils over, until we are left seeing the dark- or white-skinned other as inevitably an enemy.
Everyone seems agonized, from blacks who are fed up with being profiled whenever they venture outside their immediate neighborhoods, to Hispanics who know their turn is coming — indeed is already here in Southwest border states — to immigrants who find skin-color is as much a barrier as language and an intricate legal maze, to white people of good will who yearn for an end to racial animosity, to white people of ill will who wish they could finally just win and put black people in their place once and for all.
Race tension has shaped my entire life, from the integration of Indianapolis schools and neighborhoods to the civil rights era and its stirring speeches and terrifying riots, to the present day.
I worship with a faith community that is mixed in every way: race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic. I have learned that this is necessary — not just a tolerant thing I am doing for the less-advantaged, but essential to my well-being as a person.
On the day after the Zimmerman verdict, we were scheduled to sing bluegrass in a sing-along. At the end, the music minister invited us to sing “We shall overcome.”
I stood immediately and went to hold the hand of a black woman with whom I sing in Gospel Choir. She stood with me and took the hand next to hers. Soon the whole church was standing and singing the great anthem that applies to every one of us.
For in someone’s eyes, we are all worthless, a threat, an irritating presence. But in God’s eyes we are all precious and worthy of God’s finest blessings.
My friend Iris will always be black, and I will always be white. But when her hand is in my hand and our voices join in song, skin color goes way down the ladder of things to think about.
I think that is how the “someday” of “We shall overcome” will come about: when race, however visible it always is, ceases to matter so much.