Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Profiling the Content of One's Character

Zimmerman Verdict Series
1. Sourcing Zimmerman Verdict Angst
Today's essay is #2
3. Eulogy For Home From Zimmerman Verdict


We were three young, white, single guys.

Thin, well-dressed, well-groomed.  And yes - even I was thin, back when I lived in New York City!  I used to have a 29-inch waist.  No lie.  Of course, this was over twenty years ago, when even daily pints of Ben & Jerry's couldn't put fat on my bones.

Twenty years ago, too, the Big Apple was a far more dangerous place than it is today.

We left the Yankees game early.  Probably because it was a work night.  Probably because the Bronx Bombers were losing.  Probably because we didn't want to wait for the crush of fans at the Lexington Avenue Line subway platform alongside the venerable stadium after the game ended.

The subway car we boarded was practically empty.  But not for long.  A few minutes into our trip back into Manhattan, as the train creaked and rolled through the notorious South Bronx ghetto, the rear emergency door suddenly crashed open, and into our car swaggered a group of young black men.

And we three white boys were sitting ducks.

Boisterous and emboldened by our presence - and the lack of anybody else's - they hollered and bellowed in a gangsta dialect as they made a big production of coming over to where we were seated.  The three of us whiteys quietly glanced at each other, bracing for anything.  Those guys weren't coming over to chit-chat with us about the score of the Yankees game.  That wasn't necessary.  We all knew the score.

Those of you who've ridden New York City subway cars know there's a metal bar that hangs from the ceiling and runs down the length of the car, parallel to the seats.  Those young men came right where we were sitting, hanging onto the overhead bar, leaning down into our faces.  One of them plunked himself right down beside me, practically sitting on my lap.  I started perspiring.

I don't know how long it lasted, but these punks jeered at us for being rich (even though we weren't), white (which was obvious) and gay (which we weren't - but in New York City, it's rare to see three thin, stylishly dressed young white men together who aren't gay).  The guy who'd sat down next to me rubbed himself against me, and in my mind, I was playing the scenario I'd rehearsed about what I'd do if I was ever mugged:  give them my wallet with the $20 bill inside and the credit card, and hope they don't find the $20 bill, drivers license, and medical insurance card that I'd hidden in the socks I was wearing.  I'd heard that most muggers would be content with a $20 take, and if they roughed you up, most cabbies would still at least take you to the nearest hospital for $20.  The credit card could just be cancelled out, and maybe even used to catch whomever had stolen it.

By this time, my friends and I had been pushed tightly together by our tormentors, who were relishing the fact that we were all now perspiring, trying so hard to look at the ceiling of the subway car and ignore them, even though they were taunting us from mouths mere inches from our faces.  They weren't yelling, just amusing themselves with all the different vulgarities they could come up with for gay people, white people, and rich people.

Suddenly, the subway's passenger doors slid open, and other riders trickled into the car.  This was the signal our tormentors used to effortlessly step back from us and disappear from the subway car, while other people were still boarding.  The three of us silently reclaimed a bit of personal space between us, but remained quiet, not saying a word, nor looking at each other for the rest of the ride.  We were deeply relieved, woefully humiliated, and I can't remember us ever talking about it.  It was just part of what we should have expected, being in another ethnic group's territory.  Plus, it could have been much worse.

Facts Create Context, and Context Matters

As I've struggled for the past two days with the complaints black Christians are making about the insensitivity of us whites towards the Zimmerman verdict in Florida, two disconnects appear to be taking shape.  One of them has to do with the facts of the case, which I believe have been grossly misrepresented by the mainstream media, yet assumed to be accurate by many blacks, for whom television is a primary source for information.  The other has to do with the issue of racial profiling, which, as we all know, has been left utterly unresolved by both the trial and the verdict.

Now, the racial profiling those thugs performed on my friends and me during that subway ride may have been an isolated incident for us, but I tell the story so people will understand that I know what it's like to be racially profiled.  What I don't know about is being racially profiled like that multiple times during my life - or indeed, daily or weekly, but I can imagine how distressing and humiliating it must be.  I remember my brush with it vividly because it only happened to me two times during my three years in New York City (the other was also on the subway, by Puerto Rican and Dominican teenaged girls, who also presumed I was too thin and well-dressed to be straight).  If racial profiling is the issue blacks hoped the Zimmerman case could resolve, please understand that while I can't understand a life of such profiling, I've had a taste of what it's like.

Yet I still insist that this case was never going to resolve the issue of racial profiling, and while I'd like to be wrong about this, blacks who've allowed themselves to hope for even a productive dialog on the subject will only continue to be deeply disappointed.  And while whites may be responsible for some of the pain they're feeling, I believe that the mainstream media is mostly to blame, because they're the ones who turned a shooting in a gated condo community into a circus, full of glittery promises, hollow reality, and bitter endings.

It has been popularly believed that if it wasn't for racial profiling, Zimmerman wouldn't have gotten out of his car and confronted Trayvon Martin.  Yet while Zimmerman used the term "a**hole" while in his car, and then possibly the racially-derogatory term "coon" under his breath while he was on foot, looking for Trayvon, it was Trayvon who used explicitly racial terminology in describing Zimmerman to his girlfriend over the phone.  In terms of racial profiling, Trayvon's attitude was far more cavalier than Zimmerman's, which could speak to what his demeanor may have been like during his physical interaction with Zimmerman.

We also now know that Trayvon used marijuana, was a juvenile delinquent, and did not live at that condominium complex.  All three of those facts likely contributed to behavior witnessed by Zimmerman that combined to paint a portrait of somebody who might be up to no good.  What was the teen's mental state at the time?  How might his belligerent attitude been reflected in how he moved?  Being relatively unfamiliar with the complex, at night, and in the rain, how disoriented might he have been?  And how was Zimmerman to know that Trayvon may have likely been displaying this behavior not because he was trying to evade detection, but because other factors were impacting his demeanor?  Remember, the condo complex had recently experienced other burglaries.  If you were on patrol and saw something suspicious, would you just drive in the opposite direction?

Now, granted, Zimmerman did a number of stupid things.  He called 911, but he was impatient, and didn't want to wait for the police to arrive.  He got out of his car, which during a rain storm at night wasn't a wise thing to do.  We don't know much more than that, except that both Trayvon and Zimmerman had the right to defend themselves, and one of them ended up dead.  And the other one with bloody scars on the back of his head.  Considering all of the facts that were presented to them during the trail, Zimmerman's jury decided that it was reasonable to assume he was protecting himself, and they ruled accordingly.

That's what this case was about.  It wasn't about race, or racial profiling, or even a sweet, naive teenager being gunned down near his home.  The condo Trayvon was going to was owned by his father's current girlfriend, somebody he'd apparently started dating relatively recently, since Trayvon had been living with his stepmother until around that time.  It's entirely probable that Trayvon's troubles at school and use of narcotics stemmed from confusion, disappointment, and insecurity over his father's serial fornication.

Zimmerman obviously is no angel, but how likely is it that he's now going to have to live the rest of his life with Trayvon's death hanging over him because the youth's father didn't take his paternal role seriously enough?  Teenaged boys need their father to be morally stronger than Trayvon's was.

Content of Character Is Also Context

What does that have to do with racial profiling? Well, if we're going to go into the reasons why Zimmerman felt compelled to leave his car and pursue Trayvon, don't we have to consider the reasons Trayvon was acting the way he was to attract such attention from Zimmerman?  Remember, we don't have enough proof that Zimmerman was after Trayvon because he was black.  There's just as much proof that, had the teenager Zimmerman spotted that night been white, and had been acting the same way as Travon was acting, Zimmerman likely would have done the same thing.

But we don't know, do we?  And that is why this case is not a case for proving racial profiling.  Zimmerman was a gun-toting vigilante who was looking for anything suspicious.  When the 911 operator first asked him to identify the suspect's race, Zimmerman said he though it was black.  It wasn't until after he'd gotten a better look that he confirmed Trayvon's race to the operator.  By that time, Zimmerman was well into a state of high alert, and for people like him - see?  I'm profiling Zimmerman now - once you're that far along into a 911 call and following a suspect, race likely becomes a minor detail.


Part of me tells me to simply move on.  Drop it.  That's what plenty of other whites are doing, either out of their own well-worn frustrations over being unreconciled to blacks, or out of a closet racism that says blacks are their own worst enemy.  Part of me rationalizes that, attention spans being what they are, the media will soon pounce on something else, and the Zimmerman trial will become one of those wounds that scabs over, just like so many others.

Meanwhile, another part of me asks if I should ignore the reality that many people are still genuinely suffering over the Zimmerman verdict.  Wouldn't it be unkind - unChristian, even - to let them languish in their emotional pain?  Especially when they're brothers and sisters in Christ?  When one of us hurts, we all hurt, right?  Besides, I don't want to be a bigot in my heart.  Nor do I want other people to think I'm a bigot.

If explaining how the facts in this case doesn't help assuage the hurt blacks are feeling over its verdict, about all I can do is ask blacks not to fall into the same stereotyping traps into which we whites fall all too often.  We need to remember that racial profiling is a two-way street, and something all of us do in a variety of situations.  We also need to remember that different races and ethnicities are not our enemy, but the evil one who makes us think they are.

Didn't Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have it Biblically correct when he elevated the individual above their appearance?

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

I'm not some white man rhapsodizing on a standard-bearer for civil rights simply to elicit some emotional affirmation.  If "content of character" is what we're aiming for, doesn't that set the bar a bit higher than the Zimmerman trial?

For all of us?


  1. Very disconnected thoughts below.

    Tim I came away with the "feeling" that the first half to two thirds had some very racist content. Here is a portion I consider really bad: "We also now know that Trayvon used marijuana, was a juvenile delinquent, and did not live at that condominium complex. All three of those facts likely contributed to behavior witnessed by Zimmerman that combined to paint a portrait of somebody who might be up to no good." Zimmerman didn't know that Trayvon smoked marijuana and was a juvenile delinquent.* It was impossible for him to paint this portrait without Zimmerman all on his own assuming these things; and if he didn't assume these things he probably would not have even spoken to Trayvon. This reminds me of Bernard Goetz, the subway vigilante, (only in terms of assumptions about his neighborhood) but his situation was completely different. He didn't initiate anything and robbery was being attempted. As for your subway incident, these kids were threatening you to amuse themselves and exert dominance without stealing or battery. I consider their behavior as trying to portray a criminal gang and when I spot that behavior and dress in a group I profile them as above. What they did to you might be considered assault in a civil court and I don't know what legally you could to defend yourself if threatened. Yes, I have been bullied by whites that dress and talk like gang bangers. If Trayvon dressed and talked like our President would anyone profile him? Good chance but not as likely. I have been repeatedly harassed by the police department of a suburb south of I-20. All occasions it was daylight and I was a pedestrian dressed in khakis and a button down long sleeved shirt. After several incidents I began wearing an employment tag and a hard hat thinking this would display me as legitimately employed. Harassment was milder but still continued. Apparently the profile was a non resident walking all over their city.

    *Then there are plenty of successful white collar professionals that are just rolling their eyes on judging marijuana use as a character flaw or criminal. This because they use and view it no different than drinking a martini during prohibition. Not long ago three of us left the home of three of these white collar professionals; once we were in the car one person said, "I could smell weed in there." Due to my sinus problems this was the first I knew about it.

    1. No, at the time, Zimmerman didn't know that Trayvon smoked weed and came from a dysfunctional home.

      However, smoking weed and coming from a dysfunctional home can contribute to behavior that Zimmerman may have misinterpreted. IN FACT, if Zimmerman HAD known that Trayvon smoked weed and came from a dysfunctional home, the threatening behavior Trayvon may have exhibited could have been cause for Zimmerman to keep his distance.

      Sorry; if that's not conveyed through what I wrote, then I didn't write it well enough.


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