On July 14th, 2013, I sat in my room and thought about Trayvon Martin. The evening before, George Zimmerman had been found not guilty of murder, and I was devastated. I’m not entirely sure why. Sure, I wore a hoodie to school after he was murdered, like the dutiful liberal I am, and I had taken passing glances at the ongoing trial during breaks from work, but I never had the sense that the case held any larger significance for me, beyond the sorry state of affairs in America that it reflected. But for whatever reason, I spent the day after the verdict in a state of sadness mixed with confusion mixed with anger, combing the Internet for some commentary that would provide insight or meaning.
A year later, I am compelled to revisit that day and reflect on why the verdict hit me so hard. For all that’s happened in the past year, I am not sure I have a better answer than I did then. I still grieve for Trayvon Martin and I still lack the ability to comprehend what his family has experienced. But I do think I was wrong about something last year: The problem is not simply that an innocent teenager was killed, but rather that somebody killed him. We can’t understand the case solely in terms of Trayvon’s blackness, but rather have to recognize how whiteness functioned to keep George Zimmerman innocent. Zimmerman could pursue Trayvon, neglect an order from the police to not pursue him, and ultimately shoot him without forfeiting his innocence. All Trayvon had to do was walk down the street while wearing a hoodie and be black. The logic of the Zimmerman verdict reflects and reproduces American white supremacy, in which black people who make white people uneasy are seen as provoking death upon themselves, while white people who inflict violence upon black people are seen as keepers of the peace. This logic is the same, whether it’s enacted by George Zimmerman, the Drug Enforcement Agency, or a lynch mob.
I think what disturbs me so much about the verdict is my own complicity in this logic. Put simply, the social phenomenon that protects me is the same phenomenon that protected George Zimmerman. White people in America are able to feel secure most of the time, because the logic of whiteness defines our notion of what a human being ought to be. Sometimes the socio-political accommodation afforded to whiteness is that I walk into a store without worrying I’ll seem suspicious; sometimes the accommodation is that George Zimmerman is acquitted of murder. By George Zimmerman here, I don’t mean one specific individual, but rather the social position that he represents, one which all white people inhabit in some measure, and one which is complicit in the dehumanization of those deemed unfit for whiteness.
Following Trayvon Martin’s murder, it was somewhat in vogue to say things like “we are all Trayvon.” This is not true in any meaningful sense. In fact, quite the opposite is true: some of us (us meaning people) are Trayvon and some of us are George Zimmerman. The difference between the privilege afforded to all white Americans differs only in degree, not in kind, from the white supremacist ideology that allows George Zimmerman to walk the streets as a free man today.
So what is one to do? Since I spend most of my time reading about religion, I turn to the Bible to inspire my discernment. And though I am Jewish, the following passage from the Gospel of Luke (18:10-13) has proven insightful:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”
This passage illustrates two divergent possibilities for white Americans in responding to our complicity in white supremacy. We can be the Pharisee if we choose; we can thank God that the color of skin is a boon, not a hindrance, to our social possibilities. We can pay our taxes, go to work and come home, and assume that our comfort stems from the fact that we are simply different (read: better) from thieves, rogues, and tax collectors. We can even thank God we are not George Zimmerman, that we are “above race” in some way that allows us to self-righteously condemn the pathology of racism without meaningfully grappling with our participation in it. Or we can be honest; we can rightly identify ourselves as participants in a structure of sin and supplicate ourselves, begging for forgiveness that we can never earn. If our identity depends upon the marginalization of some Other, whether a tax collector or a black man, we will never be able to justify ourselves; we can only hope and pray to be forgiven. This is not just a religious, but a social act: begging for forgiveness means giving up the myth of our own innocence.
There’s no point in white people being guilty for the sake of being guilty. Though it is crucial that we understand how white supremacy functions in American society, it isn’t enough just to feel bad about it. More often than not, confessions of white guilt simply function to absolve the individual of responsibility for its consequences. We have to go farther, by enacting an anti-white praxis of race treason. We have to become traitors to the toxic ideology of whiteness, subverting its structures by refusing to participate in the dehumanization of non-white identities.
Of course, if it were easy to figure out precisely what this means, someone would have done it by now (one hopes). But I think the first step is to hear and to remember. To hear the voices of the peoples whom we subjugate, whether black, indigenous, Palestinian, etc, and allow the testimony of their experience to disrupt our easy notions of ourselves. To remember Trayvon Martin, along with all those before and since, who are the dehumanized victims of white supremacy.
We also need to remember George Zimmerman. In Judaism, we mourn the dead with the phrase zichrono livracha: may their memory be a blessing. Can the memory of George Zimmerman as he killed Trayvon Martin be a blessing for us? In some sense, I think it can. If Trayvon testifies to the reality of oppression, Zimmerman testifies to the reality of oppressing. Once white people acknowledge that we are, in some sense, all George Zimmerman, perhaps the memory of his heinous act can be a blessing by forcing us to reconsider ourselves in light of him. Can we be the Pharisee when that means endorsing the murder of innocents? Or do we have to acknowledge, as the tax collector does, the unbreakable connection between our whiteness and social sin?
Looking back over the past year, I’d like to be able to say that George Zimmerman has forced America to reimagine itself and put off its white supremacy, but I’m honestly not sure we’ve made much meaningful progress. America has yet to live up to the ideals celebrated on July 4. As Langston Hughes put it, we remain “the land that never has been yet.” The moral challenge posed by George Zimmerman remains unanswered. Until white people begin to beat our chests, cry out for forgiveness, and commit race treason, our self-hood will continue to depend upon the dehumanization of others, and America will always be a country where Trayvon Martin is inevitable.