Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Details Challenge Martin Catharsis


Is that the right word?  I'm trying to reconcile the things I see in this Trayvon Martin tragedy with the things respectable, evangelical Blacks are seeing, while at the same time, coming to terms with whatever latent racism I myself may be holding.

And I'm writing it all out for you, my gracious readers, to consider.

Maybe "catharsis" is just a more intriguing word for "rant."  Since this will be my fourth essay on the Martin killing, am I ranting, or being cathartic?  You can read my first essay here, in which I assume (apparently naively) that as additional facts reveal themselves, the focus of this tragedy should shift from George Zimmerman's probable guilt to a well-guarded "don't know."

In my second essay, I expressed my dismay at learning how differently some fellow evangelicals who are black have been interpreting this case.  And in my third essay yesterday, I explored what has become perhaps the key sticking point so far in this case:  the issue of racial profiling.

Today will serve as a sort of mop-up day for straggling details in this sad story of mistrust, over-zealousness, and death.  But will I get it all out of my system and feel better for it all?

I doubt it.

Are You Racist or Racial?

First, I'd like to return to the vociferous yet cogent Rev. Dwight McKissic, a prominent black Baptist minister from right here in Arlington, Texas, and his helpful definitions of some terminology we whites may have never heard before.

According to McKissic, in an April 23rd entry on his blog, there is a difference between being "racist" and being "racial:"

"A racist is intentionally, unashamedly, and foundationally comfortable viewing persons of other races as being fundamentally and inherently flawed or 'less-than.' A racist prejudges or relates to other persons based on their foundational outlook. A person who is racial in their outlook—and most of us are—are simply products of the fact that we were born into a racial construct and society, and we observed or were taught certain things about race that shapes or form our world view."

In other words, if I'm understanding McKissic correctly, being racist means that no matter what, you consider yourself better than somebody else based on a subjective opinion of their race.

Being racial, on the other hand, is far more benign than literal racism, and happens when we acknowledge differences between races without pegging negative stereotypes on those differences and making issues out of them.

It may seem to you, as it does to me, that McKissic is splitting hairs here, because it all still boils down to taking sides based on race.  It's just that the racial people pretend as though any racism they may have doesn't really exist, while the racists just let their hatred consume them.

Personally, I'd like to think there is some point at which I can meet and interact with people based purely on our respective individual characteristics and merits.  Maybe McKissic is saying that's not going to be possible in this life.  I'm not claiming to have risen above race; I think I have a little bit of both racism and racialism in me.  Racism tends to rear its ugly head when I'm confronted with a dangerous or uncomfortable situation, and racialism tends to dominate most of the rest of the time.

If, as some people say, how one acts in a crisis betrays their true character, then I'll bluntly - if ashamedly - admit that there's a racist element in me that needs to be eradicated.  But I'd also frankly offer to McKissic that the way he's pushing the issues with the Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land isn't helping in that regard.  Why?  Because I don't see why waiting for all the facts to emerge in the Martin death isn't Biblical.  How is that a "white" approach to this tragedy, as McKissic has suggested, and not the "fair" approach?

Let's Go To the Audiotape

The second issue I think needs airing involves the audiotape of Zimmerman's call to the Sanford, Florida 911 operator.  If you haven't listened to it yet in its entirety, please click here, because you will learn that what's actually said doesn't completely sync with what you've heard in the media.

For example, Zimmerman tells the operator that it's raining, and the suspect is "just walkin' around, lookin' about."  If the Sanford police department is anything like the police department here in Arlington Texas, they'll have told neighborhood crime watch volunteers to report anything to 911 that looks suspicious.  If you saw a hooded figure "just walkin' around, lookin' about" in the rain, wouldn't that strike you as suspicious?

Zimmerman also tells the operator that suspect "looks" black.  His voice is calm and hardly hateful.  He seems to be simply answering the operator's question.  Did Zimmerman include that qualifier on purpose, to disguise his racial profiling?  We'll have to wait until his trial to know for sure.

"Now he's just staring at the houses."  Zimmerman is giving a play-by-play to the operator, and considering how all of those townhouses in the gated community look alike, and that Martin was visiting the home of his father's fiance, and might not have been too familiar with which one it was, it would be logical for him to be "just walkin' around, lookin' about."  He was trying to remember where his father's fiance lived.  Had this been the case, however, how would Zimmerman know it?  And if I was in Martin's shoes, after I saw Zimmerman slow down and look me over, I'd have asked him if he knew where Ms. So-and-So lived, so I could get in out of the rain faster.  Might Martin have racially-profiled the light-skinned Zimmerman and figured he wasn't trustworthy?  Of course, at this point, Zimmerman could have called out, "Can I help you?"  But he didn't.  In my mind, that was Zimmerman's first mistake.

"He's got his hand in his waistband."  I've criticized that gangsta culture before.  And in this case, it may have helped create in Zimmerman's imagination the scenario of a black gangsta teenager with a pistol in his pants, looking for trouble.  It's hard to avoid such racial profiling when there are so many music videos, movies, and other pop culture media depicting black men, guns, baggy pants, hoodies, and violence.  For blacks like McKissic to not realize that is a form of racism too, isn't it?  Willfully refusing to recognize threatening behavior because the perpetrator is black is still race-based behavior, isn't it?  Do blacks not find the sight of other blacks reaching for guns in their pants threatening behavior?

Note, too, that it's almost half-way into the telephone call before Zimmerman confirms to the operator that the suspect is a black male.

"They always get away."  This quote from Zimmerman has been used in the media to assume his use of racial profiling.  And while that may be correct, could it also be Zimmerman's way of saying that burglary suspects in general always get away?  My neighborhood here in Arlington has been hit numerous times in the past several years with brazen burglaries, and most of the time, the crooks get away.  We've had white, black, and Hispanic burglars caught in our neighborhood, so we can't stereotype the burglars who've gotten away.  Yes, if you've already decided Zimmerman was racially profiling, this quote seems to seal your assumption.  But does it really?

Then comes what sounds like Zimmerman huffing and puffing, and maybe the dinging of a chime in his vehicle.  Has he opened his door and exited his vehicle?  Is Zimmerman now himself on foot, following the suspect?  It's plausible, since he's just muttered, "they always get away," and he may have begun to lose patience waiting for the police to arrive.

After a few seconds, the operator can hear Zimmerman continuing to breathe into his mobile phone like people do when they're walking briskly.  The operator asks Zimmerman if he's following the suspect, and he replies that he is.  You'll notice that the operator does not tell Zimmerman to remain in his vehicle, as some media outlets have reported.  You'll also notice that the breathing Zimmerman had been doing into his mobile phone stops soon after being instructed by the operator to not follow the suspect any more.

Obviously, however, Zimmerman doesn't get back into his vehicle.  Or if he does, he gets out again at some point before shooting Martin.  He also asks the operator if he can tell the cops where he'll be when they arrive - he doesn't offer to stay put.  Does that mean Zimmerman had made up his mind to follow Martin, no matter the cost, even after the operator had told him to back off?  It looks that way, but we won't know for sure until his trial.

We also don't know the point at which Zimmerman encountered Martin for the second time.  How did that scenario unfold?  We simply don't know.  We can make conjectures and hypothesize, and that's all everyone seems to be doing right now.  But that's hardly the basis for a solid exegesis of this case, is it?

And that remains my point through all of this.  We don't have all the facts, but the media, in its earnestness to amass viewership and market share, wants us to listen to them, so they compete by encouraging us to begin formulating scenarios that seem to fit standard patterns of strife and hatred.  How much air time could they sell if they told everybody that so far, the evidence that has been accumulated is inconclusive?

John Piper's Take

It's a trap that none other than John Piper, one of reformed evangelicalism's most trusted preachers, appears to have fallen into.

On his blog, McKissic thanks Piper, a fellow Baptist (albeit of the reformed persuasion) for supporting the prevailing progressive view of Zimmerman as a racial profiler and Martin as an innocent victim.  But I suspect that although, like McKissic, Piper is an extremely busy man, his busyness involves criminal investigations even less than McKissic's does.  Instead, he perhaps relies too heavily on filtered feedback from his underlings and sound bites in the media.  The unfortunate result here is that Piper's comments related to the events surrounding Martin's killing seem to betray an analytical disconnect that is uncharacteristic for somebody of his educational and theological pedigree.

Indeed, the reason it's important to do a double-take on Piper's input on the Martin tragedy stems from the loyalty so many evangelicals have developed towards him and his opinions.

"Martin was unarmed. Zimmerman claims self-defense," Piper dramatically states, ignoring the fact that at the time, Zimmerman didn't know Martin was unarmed.  We don't even know the point at which Martin realized Zimmerman was armed.  Does it make a difference?  We don't know, so Piper shouldn't imply what none of us yet know to be true.

Piper mentions Zimmerman's rap sheet, but doesn't mention that Martin was on probation from high school.  How fair is that?  Piper also seems to have a problem with the Second Amendment, repeatedly referencing Zimmerman's gun, and failing to acknowledge that neither Zimmerman nor the 911 operator knew if Martin had a gun or not.

Piper makes the same mistake almost everybody has made about that fateful 911 call by assuming Zimmerman was still in his vehicle when the 911 operator told him the police didn't want him following the suspect.  As I think I've proven (above), the 911 operator didn't realize Zimmerman was following the suspect - on foot, even; not in his vehicle - until Zimmerman had already left his vehicle.  Does that make any kind of difference?  We won't know for sure until Zimmerman's trial.

Piper also wades into murky legal territory when he ascribes Florida's controversial "Stand Your Ground" law to Zimmerman's motives.  It's the media and opponents of the law who've made that connection; we don't know for certain if Zimmerman was relying on Stand Your Ground to give him immunity in this situation.  We do know that Zimmerman somehow received two gashes to the back of his head, indicating that some sort of confrontation took place, ostensibly with Martin.  If the two were in what at least one of them considered to be a mortal struggle, then using one's gun for self-preservation is understandable.  Here again, we're bordering on the hypothetical here, so we need to wait for facts to emerge at trial.

From there, Piper begins a well-crafted homily on befriending the mistreated, towards which I have no objections.  Indeed, I don't fault Piper for speaking out against racism; I simply think his interpretation of the facts rely too much on suppositions and weak correlations that have already been parroted unconvincingly in the media.

Can't We All at Least Agree on This?

Yet even though his grasp of this case's details is disappointing, Piper manages to point out something on which every evangelical watching the Martin tragedy should surely agree:

"O what a difference it would have made if George Zimmerman had thought: 'I have a gun,'" Piper writes. "'For Christ’s sake — for the sake of love — I better not follow this young man. I might wind up using it. Law enforcement is on the way. I have done my duty. Lord, I pray that this man will be treated with respect, and that justice will be done, and that your name will be great in this place.'”

As conservative evangelicals are disproportionately represented among die-hard advocates for gun rights, it's too easy to forget that the Second Amendment is one thing, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ is another.  We are to love our enemies, and that includes the people we think may be our enemy.  All of the factors leading up to Martin's death notwithstanding, if Zimmerman had taken his responsibilities for gun ownership as gravely as we should, he would not have exacerbated a situation in which he didn't know if Martin had a gun as well.

If lacking prudence was a crime, Zimmerman would undoubtedly be guilty.  But a lack of Christ-like love for our fellow man is a sin.  Not that shooting somebody in self-defense is a sin.  However, not respecting life enough to be prudent with the situations to which one exposes one's self could be.  God will know how that relates to both Zimmerman and Martin better than anybody else.

As for Zimmerman's criminal liability here on Earth, meanwhile, nothing has yet been proven in a court of law.  Until it is, doesn't Zimmerman have the right to be considered innocent?

I'm not asking because I'm a bigoted white man.  I'm asking because I want to believe I'm not.

Update:  To further support everything I've said in this essay, consider this report from Reuters, which was posted an hour before my essay was yesterday evening.  And if you think I can compose an essay like this in an hour, I've got a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn!  By chance, I found the Reuters article Thursday morning.

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