Trayvon Martin and Race: A Sober Assessment
No greater tragedy can befall parents than having to bury a child. This is especially true when the child is killed and a perpetrator gets away with it. In this sense no American can but feel the double pain of the parents of Trayvon Martin.
On the other side of the equation, however, is the interview given by the father and brother of George Zimmerman, the shooter, who have spoken of a son and sibling who shot an assailant in self-defense but who is now being so pilloried and demonized that he cannot leave his home for fear of violence.
Who is right?
Well, we don’t yet know all the facts and it would be wrong to prejudge the outcome.
What is clear, however, is that a young African-American teenager, wearing a hoodie against the rain, died, seemingly, for carrying a can of iced tea and a bag of skittles. If that isn’t a tragedy than the word has no meaning. He was unarmed. Zimmerman was told by 911 that it was unnecessary for him to pursue Martin. So why did he continue to give chase?
Was it, as so many, especially in the African-American community, believe because Trayvon was black and thus racially profiled by Zimmerman as a menace? It seems impossible not to arrive at that conclusion. Whatever transpired after that – and Zimmerman is claiming that Martin assaulted him – the question remains why Zimmerman didn’t heed the advice of the 911 dispatcher he himself contacted and stand down.
Race continues to divide our great nation. Truth be told, I hate the very word. There is no white race and there is no black race. There is only one human race that diverges into far more tangential considerations like ethnicity and skin color. Trayvon Martin was not a black teenager. He was an American teenager. He was our son, he was our brother. He belonged to all of us. And he died, seemingly, for no reason except that he was trying to protect himself from the rain with a hood on his head.
The hoodie got me thinking. When you speak of a hood in the context of race the first thing that comes to mind is the hood of the Ku Klux Klan which is used to allow Klansmen to appear frightening and menacing and to conceal their identities. That’s the kind of hood we should have a problem with, not a hood worn by a teenager against the rain.
I’m a Jew and I wear a hood. It’s called a Yarmulke, or a black Hassidic hat, and, like Trayvon Martin, it allows others to make snap decisions about what I represent. If the assumptions were only positive – Shmuley has a commitment to spirituality and ethics, he is open-minded and tolerant – I would be flattered. But often the assumptions are that I am a right-wing religious fundamentalist who looks down at non-Jews and is part of a religion that oppresses women. I hate when people judge me by my garb and not by heart and I understand why African-American youth would feel the same.
To be sure, just as there are things in the Jewish community that must change, there are things in the African-American community that should as well. In my community materialism can sometimes trump spirituality, as when a Bar Mitzvah or wedding becomes more about impressing guests than a holy celebration that brings us closer to G-d. Among African-Americans a 75% out-of-wedlock birthrate runs against the values of a community that is deeply religious and has always cherished marriage, family, and children. This is something must definitely be addressed. But wearing a hoodie is not.
Zimmerman may have fired in self-defense. We just don’t know the facts yet. But even that confrontation, if it’s accurate, came about because he saw a hooded black man walking through a neighborhood at night and immediately thought, in the words of Zimmerman himself, that the youth was ‘up to no good. He is on drugs or something?’
I live in a community comprised largely of orthodox Jews and African-Americans. People have a right to walk through a neighborhood and look at homes, which is what Zimmerman is alleged to have said of Martin. That’s why the dispatcher at 911 told him to stay in his car. What he was being told, in essence, is that Zimmerman’s suspicions alone were not sufficient to pursue the teenager. It was for the police, who were on their way, to make that judgment.
I am a white man. But I understand completely the feelings in the African-American community that this was the most senseless death predicated on the conjecture on the part of a neighborhood watch volunteer that a black man walking through a neighborhood presupposes ill intent. Neighborhood watch volunteer means just that. You watch. You study. You report. You don’t take the law into your own hands. You don’t become judge and jury as to a person’s intent. If it were a Jew murdered in similar circumstances for simply walking around a neighborhood at night with a bottle of Coke and a black hat I would hope that our community would likewise be up in arms. No doubt people with white skin can appreciate that when you have darker skin and you go out to buy some candy it’s outrageous for others to assume that you may be a criminal.
Then there is the Florida “stand your ground law,” which gives people wide latitude to use deadly force rather than retreat during a fight. Is it a just law? I am not a lawyer. But I am a Rabbi and I employ my Judaism and its values in determining justice. Jewish law is clear. One may only take a life when it is evident that an assailant has murderous intent. Could Zimmerman have reasonably surmised that Martin had murderous intent as he walked with a hood through his neighborhood? Certainly not. Did it happen later, when, as Zimmerman claims, Martin assaulted him? Perhaps. But once again, had Zimmerman left the matter in the hands of the police as he was instructed to do the confrontation would never have happened.
I want to repeat. George Zimmerman may be innocent of murder. I am not a law-enforcement professional and I do not know all the facts. Besides, he retains the presumption of innocence as justice and our legal system stipulate. One injustice does not deserve another. We have to wait for all the facts of the case to be made clear. But to say Zimmerman is innocent of bias – certainly as his actions of that terrible night indicate – seems a real stretch.
If I were Trayvon Martin’s parents I would feel an absolute obligation to go to the ends of the earth to demand justice. If justice determines that Zimmerman walk, then so be it. But who could fault parents demanding that they get to the bottom of why their son, who went to buy a can of iced tea, is now in a grave.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the international bestselling author of 27 books including his the acclaimed new bestseller “Kosher Jesus,” is a candidate for the United States House of Representatives in New Jersey’s Ninth Congressional District. His website is www.shmuleyforcongress.com. Follow him Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
Written in memory of Machla Debakarov, mother of a dear friend of Rabbi Shmuley, who recently passed away.