We are all at one time or another, strangers.
We never think of ourselves as strangers, but others around us at one time or another surely will. For thousands of years groups of human beings have found ways to bond and build unity. Unfortunately, at the same time that we form the “we,” the “them” or the “other” is automatically formed. That is the fundamental basis of discrimination, judgement, bias and, yes, racism. It’s us against them. It’s “you and I are not the same and I don’t trust you.”
On that unfortunate night when George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin met face to face, they both saw a stranger. George Zimmerman had already been armed and ready for “the stranger” and acted accordingly when he encountered a startled Trayvon Martin. Not much can really be said about that night because the only real witness was not a witness at all but a participant observer overwhelmed by his own fear, anger and pursuit of “the stranger in the night.”
Racism is but a word and concept that when put to the test of thought and reason falls short of describing the totality and complexity of many of the situations it, perhaps ironically, so often is a vital part of. Racism as an explanatory concept falls short because outside of “the human race” all the other constructs relating to race do not hold up to scientific scrutiny. There is only one kind of human being, though we are all quite different. Historically those differences have divided us and caused some of us to treat other people in inhumane ways. The construct of “White person” has been used historically to bring together a normally disparate collection of people. The early KKK included a diversity of people from different religions and ethnicities. This collection of disparate people were united in their apposition to the empowerment and liberation of antebellum South people–African Americans who had been enslaved because they were brought to America as muscle for work and were labeled, legally, as somewhere between animal and human. There is much psychosis and ill will in the history of the American Republic and as inheritors of that legacy, White people (however one defines the complex category) must live with that history. Black people must also live with that burden as victims and objects of hostility. As Americans, we all have a responsibility to address that past and to make sure that it does not dominate our present or future. There is no more important a challenge for the future of this Republic. America cannot go on closing its doors and incarcerating people who do not fit an antiquated norm.
America must work on reinventing itself and forging a culture that will better define what it expects from its citizens and one that is more attentive and inclusive of what it needs from the future than what it needs from its past. America must be more forward looking and embracing of people’s differences. That will not be easy… but it must happen. It cannot be done piecemeal through divisive movements and competition… Stakeholders in a future multicultural America must forge a value system that can be taught at home by parents, in school by teachers, at religious gatherings by spiritual leaders and in corporate America by managers. America increasingly looks different and we must figure out how to make the differences among us work if we are going to stay competitive in a competitive world.
In important ways, racism speaks to the fears and phobias held deeply by people who fear black people, especially men America labels “black.” The reasons White people fear them may be debatable, but their discomfort with “the black stranger” cannot be explained away.
George Zimmerman was afraid and emotional enough that night, that he could not simply say: Good evening. What is your name? I am the neighborhood watch guy and I do not know you? Can we talk? Perhaps he could have said something like that and a simple conversation could have unraveled. Perhaps avoiding the confrontation that ensued.
When a person feels strong and negative feelings about another person, because they are strange and foreign to them, it is understandable. But when a person feels these feelings about a person who is black or African American, that person is acting on prior perceptions and images that are a part of American history and we, as a Nation, hardly know how to talk about that.
To be sure, the “we” here is those of us who frame these issues purely as racial, with little attention to the complexities that lead to intergroup mistrust and hostilities between so called “ethnic” or “racial” groups and the mainstream which is still presumed to be “White.”
But history is not simply Black and White. America is still not able to get over its “Black and White psychosis.” The mainstream American hegemonic culture has not processed differences and cultural conflicts between groups very well. That is the most deleterious outcome of its psychosis. Although White and Black hostilities are well documented and talked about, the lynching of Native Americans and Mexican Americans that went on in the mid and southwestern states is rarely mentioned. American consciousness and history is so twisted that today Hollywood portrays yesterday’s predominantly “brown” cowboys in the erroneous image of blond haired and blue eyed John Wayne. Intergroup competition, mistrust, hatred and violence are as old as the New England witch hunts, Southern White terror and abuse and exploitation of immigrants to America.
But intergroup competition and mistrust, intergroup hostilities in the face of reason and laws is not new. What is new is the proliferation of guns in our country–both urban and suburban, legal and illegal. Mistrust and divisions between groups that increasingly fuel and dominate our electoral politics and discourse do not bode well for an America that is already on guard about teenagers shooting up our schools and theaters, disgruntled and unstable young people blowing up Federal Buildings in Oklahoma, and homeland terrorism born of immigrants from anticommunism wars that armed and trained religious minorities throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East. History is very much with us and we are doomed to repeat it. The violence that ensued between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin is very much embedded in racial history and mistrust. Mistakes happen, but guns have to be carrier by choice and how we define and treat one another in any situation has roots in how we were brought up and how “the other” looks and “feels” to us.
Hope lies in the hearts and minds of today’s young. But it will not survive for long if we allow police departments, States like Florida and the media establishment to make the mistakes and the politically motivated laws that promote vigilantism and hostility between neighbors. For example, the stand your ground law apparently does. What kind of society have we become that we allow excessive use of violence no matter what? In a diverse society where so many of us treat one another as “the other” or “the stranger” we cannot afford laws and court systems that allow anyone to define another person, and based on how they define that person, feel fear for their lives and kill them. That is insane and that is what is wrong with the Florida court system today.
Something is terribly wrong in American justice today. On the one hand, there is this slavery and civil rights history that is somewhat alien to most of today’s young people (today’s young people, of any race or ethnicity) and is somewhat stuck in the past for the rest of us. Civil rights is no longer about black and white. The country is much different today and in important ways the current generation that will matter, in terms of what happens in the next quarter century (young people between the ages of 15 to 35) is up at bat.
What are young people on all sides and from all communities going to do to make the future America kinder and gentler? What ever happened to community and neighborhood?
We better start talking and doing…