Almost a week after the verdict was passed down in the Trayvon Martin case I was still debating whether to write this piece. So much has already been said. I am excited to see debates around racism springing up online, at the grocery store, and over dinner with friends. These frank conversations about race are long overdue.
I decided to write this piece as my reflection to the reactions I have heard and read. For however weak my words are, they are still the strongest tool I have.
In my circles, I have heard countless cries to “do something” about racism in the U.S. My friends, family, neighbors and co-workers are outraged and sad about the verdict.
In considering reactions to the Trayvon Martin case, I want to set aside conversations of right and wrong. I have no place deciding what is “wrong” in personal responses to something that stirs so much immediate and visceral emotion, but I am concerned with whether or not certain reactions are constructive. Not all reactions will “do something” about racism.
This case, this tragedy, is about race—in particular, it is about racism. This is not surprising when one considers that our country was built on a foundation of racism. It is not that we have a “race problem”; it is that the very foundation of who and what we are as a country is rooted in racism.
It is easy, in a case like this, to create villains. We can blame Zimmerman, the jury, the lawyers, the entire government of Florida. I believe this is misguided and may continue to reinforce racism. When Zimmerman becomes the monster, we can separate ourselves from his racist actions. We can say we are different; we are not racist. Well, we are. All of us have emerged from the same “systems” that created Zimmerman.
A more appropriate response to this tragedy is to blame the “system.” There are a lot of “systems” to blame—justice, education, and market capitalism to name a few. While the system-blaming response more accurately describes the pervasiveness of racism, it is illusive. How do we fix a broken system? We will continue to express our outrage and sadness for many more similar tragedies committed by “the system.” These emotions get shoved under the need to survive in immoveable systems.
I believe a more constructive argument is one that actively seeks to place race at the center of the policy-making process. Our current standard for policy-making is color-blindness. This standard blatantly ignores the reality of life in the U.S.
On an individual-level we often hold ourselves to a color-blind standard. In elementary school we are told that we are all the same, that we should love each other regardless of skin color. As we grow older we profess to our friends and family that “we do not see color.” To mention race is to be racist.
This belief is naïve; it allows us to pat ourselves on the back, and be completely blind to the many ways that race shapes who we are. We are constantly bombarded by stereotypes (or in sociology, tropes) that teach us what a Black person is and does and what a white person is and does. These tropes help us categorize and make sense of our reality. Subconsciously, we create structures of this and that/us and them. Stereotypes are fed by racially coded images and language from our popular culture and our government.
We are not color-blind. No matter how hard we try, we cannot be color-blind.
But we strive for this in our policies. The consequences of this color-blind standard are worse than ignoring racism; this standard reinforces racist structures. It ignores the fact that people think and act based on racial stereotypes and then call those who claim discrimination alarmists—we are told that the policy has “nothing to do with race.”
Think about it—an immigration policy that allows police officers to stop anyone they suspect is in the country illegally; a law that allows the use of force when one has “reasonable fear”; welfare policies that allow frontline workers to dole out sanctions for lack of motivation or non-compliance.
These policies never mention race, but they disproportionately impact people of color while White people are assumed innocent. These policies are never held accountable for their direct racist consequences.
We need policy-makers who are not afraid of race. We also need to carefully safeguard against racial discrimination in policy implementation. It is not enough to say a few bad apples ruin a law. If a law allows for personal judgment over who is guilty, or scary, or lazy then the law is probably perpetuating racism. Finally, we must pro-actively take race into account when we evaluate the effects of policies. When more Black people are being arrested, jailed, sanctioned, or killed we need to look at the policy level. Instead, we all too often focus on reforming and disciplining people, and let our “systems” off the hook.