Race in America: It Starts with a Story - But it must not stop there
by Rabbi Arthur Waskow
It starts with a story.
A face, a body, blood.
Two faces: one Black, one white.
It starts with a story – but it must not end there.
We must see in each story a larger Story of a racist backlash against the victories for democracy and decency of half a century ago.
The killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer have triggered – so to speak – so much discussion that the President himself, after five years of studied silence on race, felt the need to speak. And to speak with veiled hints of his own story – and hardly, just barely, a hint about policy.
It is no surprise that a lethal confrontation with a quasi-cop and the court case that resulted has triggered this society-wide conversation that is slowly broadening to face the racist backlash. When fifty years ago I wrote my doctoral dissertation about a series of race riots in 1919 and then a book that compared them with the sit-in movement of the early’60s, I concluded it was the one-sided, anti-Black actions of police and the “justice” system that triggered massive violence. And that was true even though systemic racism lay beneath the police behavior. Systemic racism created buried rage and dull depression, not overt violence.
Just as my book (From Race Riot to Sit-in: 1919 and the 1960s) was about to be published, Los Angeles exploded – a riot triggered once again by police action. Again and again and again.
This time, the swelling protest movement has had enough self-control, and enough ability to mount nonviolent demonstrations – in effect, nonviolent analogues of riots – that it has won increasing affirmation from the public , all the way to the President. (Exactly what I suggested made the difference in the second half of the book, when I looked at the sit-in movement. Question for today: What could we do today that goes beyond these demonstrations as the sit-ins went beyond court cases?)
I want to look beyond the deadly Martin-Zimmerman collision. But first:
In this case, the first signal of approaching death was Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. As it happens, Jewish wisdom is clear about this question: There is a teaching in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 70a): “If someone comes to kill you, kill him first.” Then the Talmud continues: “But if you can prevent his killing you by wounding him rather than killing him, and nevertheless you kill him, you become a murderer.” (Sanhedrin 74a.)
And all this assumes you are threatened by an invasion of your own house. All the more would you become a murderer if you can protect yourself in public space by just walking away – and instead, you choose to kill the person you fear.
Even more all the more if the person you fear is unarmed and has made no gesture to attack you.
Florida’s “Stand Your Ground “ law is almost the precise opposite of the Talmud’s teaching. Do I need to say which I think is the humane and holy wisdom?
If I engage with the story to imagine what I think was probably going on in Zimmerman’s head – that’s all this is, imagination, since we have no solid evidence about his internal process – I imagine that Zimmerman feared Martin from the git-go.
I believe that the first reason for Zimmerman’s fear was that Martin was Black, and Zimmerman had been inculcated with the notion that young Black men are ipso facto dangerous.
Then if Zimmerman feared Martin, why did Zimmerman not walk away as his police contact told him to, over the telephone?
I believe the reason Zimmerman did not walk away was a combination of three factors: racial entitlement (that is, racism); machismo; and his possession of a gun. Like this:
“I am not going to show any fear of this person whom I fear! – He’s Black. I’m white, and I’m scared. But that makes it all the more crucial that I don’t let my fear of a Black man turn me into being subservient. He is supposed to be subservient, not me. What’s more, I have a gun, and I am a MAN. If I walk away, I’m not a man. I’m a coward.”
It’s possible that Zimmerman was already thinking about the “Stand Your Ground “ law as his defense, but I doubt it. I think the moment was probably too visceral to have involved coherent thought.
I also believe that Martin feared Zimmerman because he had heard a thousand stories of Black men being harassed, beaten, even occasionally killed by white policemen.
But whether Zimmerman did or didn’t have the “Stand Your ground” law in mind, the law contaminated the police non-investigation of the killing for the first six weeks after Trayvon Martin’s death.
And it did not stop there. The Zimmerman trial itself was contaminated by racism which limited the prosecution’s ability and willingness to be clear about the impact of racism both on Zimmerman and on Martin’s responses to being followed by an armed white man. So within the boundaries of the trial itself, no surprise that the jury found at least reasonable doubt enough to acquit Zimmerman.
But let’s not stop there.
I totally understand why the Martin-Zimmerman case spoke with such deep emotional force especially to people in the Black community and to many whites as well. It gave faces, bodies, and blood to what is clearly a racist backlash in American politics and culture. I honor the visceral response to this visceral event and story.
(And by the way, it is Providential – a wonderful case of good timing by the Interbreath of Life – that just as this case reverberates, the film Fruitvale Station, a wonderfully complex and multidimensional version of a very similar story of a police killing in San Francisco several years ago, is in theaters right now. See it!)
Nevertheless, I think that facing the policy shifts that have been weakening the Black and Brown voices in American democracy is more important than this one case, though harder to grasp emotionally.
I had my own rueful experience of this several months ago after the Supreme Court hearings on the Voting Rights Act, when it looked 90% likely that the Court would, by 5-4, cut the heart and guts out of the Act.
I tried to persuade my fellow-Elders who are veterans of the Black-led multiracial Freedom Movement of the ‘60s, and I tried to persuade officials of the NAACP, to call for and carry out a non-violent direct action aimed directly at the Supreme Court — a nonviolent “pre-emptive strike” – at its very building.
But although everyone I talked to acknowledged the importance of the pending decision, no one felt the emotional intensity necessary to mount such an action. By way of contrast – in the wake of the Zimmerman acquittal, the NAACP and many local Black organizations and Black-led coalitions have been mounting demonstrations.
So SCOTUS by a 5-4 vote did indeed eviscerate the Voting Rights Act. Let us remember, fifty years ago there were faces, bodies, blood in this story too. Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman – two Jews and a Black – died to make that law happen. John Lewis, now a Congressman, was beaten almost to death to make that law happen. Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten to make that law happen. Police on Pettus bridge near Selma, Alabama, beat marchers bloody to stop that law from happening – and in what was an almost predictable result, not a paradox, actually helped bring the law about.
But fifty years later, the Supreme Court decision seemed abstract, words rather than a story. So we need to remind ourselves that Black political power in the South is important, and that undermining it erases those past deaths from living history, the history of today. We already suffer from domineering white power that has made it possible to pass laws like “Stand Your Ground,” to choose judges who exclude race from the evidence in the Zimmerman trial, and choose prosecutors who bow to that exclusion. We must remind ourselves that letting the Court destroy VRA will make it worse, in every sphere of life.
Indeed, SCOTUS’ 5-4 ruination of VRA was not only a result and symptom of a powerful racist backlash in the U.S. It was also – even worse – a stimulus and aid to worsening the disempowerment of Blacks.
The war on young Black men in the guise of a war on drugs is another aspect of that racist backlash against the victories for democracy and decency won by the Freedom Movement.
I think that at every opportunity we need to broaden discussions of the Zimmerman verdict to address the racist backlash.
But we can’t stop even there.
We must peel away the hidden truth beneath the onion skins of ‘different” issues: Much of American culture celebrates domination and power-over, rather than community, compassion, sharing, and love.
The power of killing over conversation.
The power of the gun over the unarmed.
The power of whites over Blacks.
The power of male-ness, machismo, harshness, over women, the “womanly,” gentleness.
The power of hyper-wealth and corporate greed over the interweaving, Interbreathing, of workers, customers, citizens, and Mother Earth herself.
Bowing down to Lord and King as what we name sacred and divine, rather than dancing with each other in the wind of YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Interbreath of life.
To transform the myriad stories of our lives, we can begin with any one of these dimensions. We can even begin with a single story in any single one of these dimensions.
And as we do, let us link each story with the larger Story, and work systemically to transform the domineering system.
With blessings of shalom, salaam, paz, peace – and perseverance!
Source: Shalom Center Rabbi Arthur Waskow is Director of The Shalom Center http://www.theshalomcenter.org/ He is a courageous interfaith leader who stands for justice. Type his name into the TAM search engine and 70 articles will come up.