Thursday 18 July 2013

Thinking about Trayvon

I was out with friends in a trendy bar in San Francisco's Tenderloin on Saturday night. (The contrast in that statement is sharp; one walks past a lot of sadness to get to this chic spot, safely inside frosted glass that lets in light but not scenes of desperation.) A smoke break for my friends made space for me to check the news on my phone and read the verdict of the Zimmerman trial. I fully expected to be reading that he was not found guilty of the murder of Trayvon Martin, but I did expect to see that the manslaughter option had stuck.

Foolishly, I was not prepared to read that a jury would have acquitted Zimmerman. Or that an expert witness would have stated that it was time to drop this, and let the man get back to his life and family.

I really was not prepared to have a verdict land that so soundly stated the difference in value between white and black lives. Really, race relations in Florida were on trial in this case. The only positive outcome is that now, people are talking about what an outrage this is, what a joke the legal system in Florida is, what white privilege is and what can people do about this widening gulf that should sicken us, where on one side sits poverty and all the social ills that come with a highly insecure life, and on the other are all the people who never even have to notice that this kind of structural inequality exists. And persists, thriving on just that kind of ignorance.

I've been reading so many things: the account of a grey-haired astronomy professor driving through Florida, who in a moment realised that white people feeling threatened by their own racism could have resulted in his jailing, or death. A young black man writing that he gradually came to appreciate, rather than resent, the ways that his mother made him aware that he was different than his white friends, even if he was multi-lingual and well-educated. White authors imploring white audiences to fight back against that urge to say that they are not racist, and instead see how pervasive these problems are and that we must resolve to push back.

In some ways, we are beyond the big actions on racism. We have largely eliminated from the books those laws which explicitly draw lines between people of different colours. (In some cases, prematurely--the Supreme Court's action on the Voting Rights Act imagines an America where Southern states, blithely unaware of themselves as anything worse than "accidentally racist," are fit judges of how to equally protect an electorate from themselves.) We are now mostly down to cultural changes, self-examination and demands of righteous anger when racism and excuse-making hijack our public institutions and turn them into vessels for antipathy.

I think of my own experiences, living in neighbourhoods where I've been followed home or harassed by black men, and also see where I am in this, as a non-threatening target for rage or reaction, a less-dangerous representative of a portion of society that disproportionately controls the fates of others. I am also reminded at regular intervals that my life, and my control over it, are valued less highly than others. In this sticky matrix of race and gender and judgment, being blithely unaware is abusive. Humiliation can be deadly, though not always for the one brought low. Those moments of exercising power over people have ramifications that vibrate through this web, and that shaking undermines some more than others. The lifelines become detached and drift away in places, those formerly strong, invisible cords cut away until gradually there's not much purchase for anyone.

This backsliding and blindness is detrimental to all of us. The paranoia and privilege of white males, insecure in a masculinity built on nothing but flailing hierarchy and damaged pride, is perhaps the greatest example of how corrosive ignorance is. The fabric of society is rent asunder, and the opportunity opens for those bullies doing the tearing to scramble to the top of the heap and demand fealty. This isn't good for anyone.

So what do we do? We talk about this. A lot. We should keep talking. We have reached the point of being able to resolve a lot of these things by deepening our awareness of them. We have succeeded in tearing down the worst bastions of discrimination before this moment, and now we need to keep talking about why we did that. What we're walking away from. How these moments of judgment, ignorance and avoidance add up to destitution and violence. The conversation about Trayvon's end is about how paranoia and ignorance kill. And we're having the same conversation if we're talking about women's rights, or discrimination against people who don't conform to the someone's idea of the right way to do sex or gender. 

We need to push back against this moment, in which a certain contingent finds it useful to declare that some lives are worth more than others. This is embarrassing, and it's not what America should be about. We were built on higher ideals than this, and failure in this regard is more than a moral matter--the anger and abuse perpetuated by discrimination makes all of us poorer, in so many ways.

We have to see. And to listen. We have to become sensitive to the world around us, and the way that people live in the world around us, and stop judging and start helping. Anger is useful when it impels us away from ugliness and gives us energy to move toward something better.

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