Monday, June 18, 2012

Integrity and Race in Martin Case

"Let's wait for all of the facts to come out."

Isn't that what I've been preaching regarding the killing of Trayvon Martin?

For the most part, our media industry notwithstanding, it seems that America is willing to let Florida's criminal justice system do its thing.  Protest marches in Martin's memory have drawn underwhelming turnouts, and an online fund hurriedly established to raise money for his shooter's defense quickly collected $130,000 in an affirmation - however biased - of the rule of law.

After all, why send money to pay for lawyers when you don't think justice could be served?

Some folks, mostly in the black community, have been quick to jump on the bandwagon of civil rights, if not outright racism, assuming from the beginning that George Zimmerman, the man who shot Martin, deployed a vindictive form of racial profiling on the teenager.

Other folks, like me, have insisted that too much armchair quarterbacking outside of Zimmerman's courtroom could distort the facts to the point that justice is either not served in this case, or fails to absolve the acrimony fomented by too much sensationalistic hyperbole.  Hyperbole both from liberal activists like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and conservative pundits like Fox News and Geraldo Rivera.

What apparently none of us saw coming was Zimmerman shooting his own self in the foot.  Metaphorically, anyway.  It's as clear a problem as it could be:  the unraveling tale of Zimmerman and his wife, Shellie, lying under oath during his bond hearing.  They indicated to the court that they were financially broke, but they neglected to inform the court of that $130,000 sitting in an online account to defray his defense expenses.  Granted, they didn't have direct control over that money, but they knew it was was available to them as a source of a type of income.  But they withheld that information from the court.

Deliberately, as it turns out.

Let's Roll the Audiotape

Several weeks ago, George Zimmerman's bail was revoked due to his perjury during his bond hearing, and he returned to jail.  Last week, Shellie Zimmerman was also arrested for her role in the deceit.  And now we're learning about the proof used by the court to determine that the couple in fact knew about the fund, and were even actively trying to hide it from authorities.

The proof rests plain as day in the transcript of a jailhouse telephone call George made to his wife before his bond hearing in which the couple reviews the procedures they were going to use to, in effect, launder the money from the online fund into their personal bank accounts.  It seems George either didn't realize every telephone call made from jail is taped - and not just for customer service training purposes - or that he and his wife needed to have better code words.  It's obvious they were trying to disguise part of their conversation.

They didn't just talk about money, either.  Some of Zimmerman's critics have accused him of being an action-happy vigilante, on the prowl not just for potential trouble, but on the prowl for some exciting trouble.  Unfortunately for Zimmerman, he hands his critics some important evidence of his thirst for violence when he switches the telephone conversation with his wife from money to bullet-proof vests.  He wants her to purchase three of them; for her, himself, and his lawyer.

Now, I don't watch many cop shows, but I've watched enough news shows to understand that a dead defendant doesn't necessarily help either the prosecution or the defense in such a high-profile case as this.  I'm not saying Zimmerman's concern over bullet-proof vests wasn't warranted, but don't law enforcement agencies usually take care of protecting defendants?  And if they don't, why didn't he ask his wife to ask his lawyer to arrange for special safety measures?  Maybe while in jail, he heard rumors that his life was already in danger; but it certainly plays into the hands of an already-skeptical black community for him to be anticipating the type of violence involved with wearing bullet-proof vests.

Black and White, Reading Between the Lines

And speaking of that already-skeptical black community, you might recall my blog essays regarding the response two prominent evangelical black pastors had to Richard Land's remarks on the Martin case.  Land, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, offended many black Baptists with some recklessly-worded opinions he'd voiced on his radio show.  That episode, along with some other persistent questions I've had about how evangelical blacks can vote for a pro-choice politician like President Obama, led me to e-mail some of my personal friends who happen to be black for their perspectives.

I was troubled to learn that skepticism still seems to run quite high among America's educated, middle-class black community.  For the most part, at least in their interactions with us white folk, it's a dormant skepticism that usually only surfaces during episodes of particular poignancy like the Martin case.  Whereas they might discuss common race-based concerns amongst fellow blacks, they've learned that life goes much more smoothly when they simply talk about business, school, hobbies, and such with us whites.  We generally can't share the basic stigma they face because, well, we're usually the ones applying the stigma.

It doesn't help matters that for evangelical blacks, most of the churched people they know who aren't black are whites - evangelical whites who faithfully listen to blowhards like Rush Limbaugh, cackle derisively along with Glenn Beck's anti-poverty jokes, and vote lock-step with a Republican party that vilifies welfare, Social Security, and other entitlement programs.

"Entitlement programs:" the term that has come to re-define the social safety nets churches used to provide our neighbors - and ourselves - before we ceded those mandates to the government.

Contrary to popular (white) opinion, evangelical blacks may not be crazy about every plank in the Democratic Party platform, but they may also have disproportionately grown up around people - even relatives - who used to be on welfare.  Their aging parents - like those of many of us whites - couldn't survive without Social Security.  Some of them may have had to resort to food stamps or Section 8 housing for a season, or know of friends or family who have.  For many evangelical blacks, theirs is probably the first generation that has truly emerged from the shackles of poverty, and the upward mobility they're experiencing now remains fresh enough so they can still smell the odor of the bad old days.  Days when their family was not only poor, but politically and socially disenfranchised.

Closing the Credibility Gap

No matter what color skin you have, good memories don't linger for long, but bad memories have deep roots.  For evangelical blacks, Christ has saved them from sins, but not from knowledge of the way we whites used to treat them.  I don't believe this is personal on their part, but simply a matter of pragmatism and protection.  My black friends were not eager to dialog with me on this subject, but they all wanted me to know that the proof of true friendship is in the quality of relationships.  It's just that when they see the relationships many of us whites have with the more bigoted elements in our society, it's disconcerting to them.

And that's disconcerting to me.  Disconcerting, because I believe one of the keys to America's ability to reform welfare and other entitlements is the establishment of credibility between our black and white communities.  As a country, I think we set a pretty amazing precedent by electing Obama to the White House, but the way we criticize his policies isn't helping us much these days.  For example, we should be able to share divergent perspectives and convictions without the vitriol and disrespect we see from people like Neil Munro of The Daily Caller. Munro may have won some publicity for his right-wing employer by interrupting the President, but he did not establish any credibility as a legitimate journalist.

Credibility, of course, is what Zimmerman compromised by lying to the court during his bail hearing.  Believability is crucial to making one's case, particularly in a court of law.  And being caught lying on something as obvious as a $130,000 defense fund doesn't bode well for a court's opinion on everything else he has to say.

Indeed, integrity plays a critical role in how we pursue life, and how those pursuing life around us interact with us.

The facts are beginning to come out in the Martin case.  And we may learn more than we expected to.

About him, and ourselves.

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