Dr. King and the Trayvon Martin Case

Dr. Martin Luther King at a press conference.
Dr. Martin Luther King at a press conference. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week, as I listened to different people, primarily white, urge people to “trust” the justice system, and to “wait” for the justice system to work in the Trayvon Martin case, I found myself wanting to cover my ears from the din of useless noise.

Useless noise is exactly what it sounded like, this plea for African-Americans to wait for the justice system to work, because the system has so seldom worked on behalf of black, brown and poor people in this nation.

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King talks about “the law,” and how there are just and unjust laws. It seems that white clergy were urging Dr. King to obey the law and to “wait for the justice system to work.” Dr. King pushed back, saying that “there are some instances when a law is just on its face and unjust in its application.” I thought of the “stand your ground” law that is apparently protecting accused shooter George Zimmerman from being arrested. Truly, that law is just on its face, but it seems like it was unjustly applied in this case.

Dr. King talks about what is “legal,” in his discussion of just and unjust laws. The white clergy were accusing Dr. King of breaking the law, and therefore doing something illegal. Again, Dr. King pushed back, writing, “We can never forget that everything Hitler did in German was legal and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid a Jew in Hitler’s Germany,” he wrote. If, I thought, Trayvon was the aggressor in this case, according to Florida law, he would have been breaking the law, and would have put himself in the position of having to be fought off.

But it just doesn’t seem that that scenario is correct…and it seemed, as I listened to white people urge others to be calm and obey the law and let the justice system work, that they were more concerned with “law and order” than they were, or are, concerned with justice. Said Dr. King: “the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice, who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action,’ who paternally feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom, who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to ‘wait until a more convenient season,” …is frustrating. He said people of good will who have such shallow understanding are more frustrating than people of ill will who have absolute, total misunderstanding.”

It is apparently very difficult for white Americans to understand the “souls” of black people in this nation, who have been so battered, and not bettered by, the justice system. There are reasons why the rage is so obvious about young Trayvon’s shooting and Zimmerman’s non-arrest. The reasons reach far back into our history; many of us have relatives who were abused by a justice system which never intended to exhibit justice toward them or their cases. And now, here in the 21st century, we find that really not all that much progress has been made.

Roland Martin, CNN commentator, said that if there are no protests, we cannot hope for justice. Had it not been for the bravery and tenacity of Trayvon’s parents, this case would have been swept under the rug with no mention; another young black male would simply have been buried…but Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s parents, sounded the battle cry, blew the trumpet, if you will. Their refusal to let their son die in vain reminded me of how Emmett Till‘s mother, Mamie, catapulted the national shame called lynching to international attention when she refused to let her son’s death be ignored.

Dr. King, in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, wrote, “Oppressed  people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come.”  He acknowledged that “few members of a race that has oppressed another race can understand or appreciate the deep groans and passionate yearnings of those that have been oppressed, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.

Dr. King’s words, written in the mid 1960s, are just as appropriate today. The demonstrations against what appears to be gross injustice in the Trayvon Martin case must continue …or else, there will be no justice.

A candid observation…

Where are the GOP Candidates?

Did I miss it?

A true American tragedy has happened. A young, unarmed teen has been shot dead, and the shooter has not been arrested. The parents are anguished, the nation, black, white, and brown, is outraged, and I haven’t heard the GOP presidential candidates, with the exception of Newt Gingrich, say a word about it.

There has not been a word from GOP frontrunners Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum about it.

Gingrich, while defending the “stand your ground” law that Florida follows, has said that the case is a tragedy and has said that a full investigation is warranted. He has even said that the “stand your ground” law “may not apply in this case.”

So, are we to assume that the other three candidates, Santorum, Romney and Paul, do not care about this case, about what appears to be a true American tragedy? Have they no room in their hearts to at least express concern and care for young Trayvon’s parents?

Santorum raised the biggest stink about contraception. He has been vocal about the “attack on religious freedom,” but is he really so out of touch as to not see the vestiges of  injustice in this case?  Mr. Romney has spent literally millions of dollars to attack his GOP opponents; is there not a thread of outrage in him that would encourage him to attack or at least address a justice system that has allowed a gross injustice to occur?

This type of injustice as concerns African-American men, is not new. It is part of America’s reality. Any president, or one who wants to be president, is surely aware of that…and ought to have the chutzpah to speak out against it. After all, if Romney or Santorum were to be elected, he would have to be president of all of the people, not just of their base.

Am I wrong?

Thank goodness for the groundswell of outrage all over the country.  From what has been presented to us, there are serious questions about what happened. What seems sure, though, is that Trayvon Martin should not be dead,and George Zimmerman ought to be answering for his behavior.

Thank goodness, too, that we are seeing the capacity of Santorum and Romney to be willing to be president of all of the people, and their capacity to take a stand on a difficult issue: racism and the justice system in America.

These two men are not presidential. The president of the United States has to be the president of all of us. He (or she) has to have the courage to stand up and against what appears to be wrong. At the least, he or she has to be able to relate to Americans who are hurting, like Trayvon’s parents.

President Obama, who has walked carefully over the minefield called race and racism in America, has spoken out, saying that if he had a son, “he would look like Trayvon,” but he said he wanted to respect the investigation of the case,  both national and local. That was the right thing to do, the right thing to say. That as presidential.

However,neither  Santorum, Romney nor Paul has shown compassion or backbone, not in this instance.

It’s a significant revelation. It is a telling revelation. It is a troubling revelation.

A candid observation …

Killing of Black People Still Not Important

During the height of the Civil Rights movement, Ella Josephine Baker said, “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.”

That was in 1964.

Surely, Ms. Baker would be reminding us of that thought as the alleged killer of a 17-year old, unarmed African-American teen has still not been arrested.

George Zimmerman, who has said he shot young Trayvon Martin in self-defense, is free, and despite how difficult it is to believe how this tragedy could in any way have been self-defense, the authorities have chosen to believe him, saying there is “no probable cause” to arrest him.

It’s this sort of thing that taps into the rage of African-Americans, who for too long have been exploited and mistreated by the justice system. In fact, when it comes to African-Americans, historically there has been little real justice.

The foundation of America is one that was built on racism, and on the belief that African-Americans were not really human. It is documented history that African-Americans could be and were accused of crimes with very little to no evidence, and jailed and or executed for the same. No justice system, local, state, or national, seriously intervened to protect the rights of African-Americans.

In fact, in the historic Dred Scott decision, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney said, boldly, and wrote, that “there are no rights of a black man that a white man is bound to respect.”

The accused killers of young Emmet Till, Roy Bryant and John Milam, were acquitted by an all-white jury after only 67 minutes deliberation. It is recorded that one of the jurors said they would have announced the verdict sooner had they not stopped to drink a pop.

The alleged killer of Medgar Evers, Byron de la Beckwith, wasn’t brought to justice until years after Evers’ murder.

And then there are the countless numbers of unknown African-American youths and men who get swallowed up in the “justice” system on a daily basis, challenging the ability of the African-American community to believe in justice in this country.

In the case of Trayvon Martin, the claim that his murder was done in self-defense is as insulting as it is angering. The young man was walking to his house; Mr. Zimmerman obviously had to approach him. Because the 911 tapes have not been released, nobody can talk about what really happened, but it seems very clear that Mr. Zimmerman provoked an encounter with this young man.

So, why the hold up in arresting Zimmerman? Is it because, as Ella Baker and so many others have noted, that the life of an African-American, and the loss of that life,  just isn’t a big deal to the powers that be?  There is no overt racism, or not like there used to be, but this is racism, clearly and surely. What’s going on is saying to those who think that way that it is all right to kill someone who “looks suspicious.”

What is really being said is that it is still free season on the killing of African-Americans. Make up a reason, any reason, and go for it.

As I study the history of justice in this country for African-Americans, I just get sadder and sadder. This is a country that would not even declare lynching to be wrong. The lynching era in this country lasted from 1865 to 1920, and the United StatesCongress would not pass a law outlawing it.

English: Portrait drawing of U.S. Supreme Cour...
Image via Wikipedia

Over and over, all-white juries convicted African-Americans with little to no proof, and crimes committed by white people toward blacks were pretty much ignored.

And so here we now sit, in the 21st century, with more of the same. An unarmed African-American male youth, who carried only Skittles and a can of iced tea, is dead, and nobody, I mean in the justice system, seems to care.

It is hard to watch, and even harder to admit that America still has a long way to go…Ella Baker’s words still ring true. We cannot rest; the killing of black men and  black mothers’ sons is still not as important to the rest of the country is the killing of a white mother’s son.

A candid observation…

The Beauty and Power of Forgiveness

Deutsch: Desmond Tutu beim Evangelischen Kirch...
Image via Wikipedia

Once, not long ago, I listened to a white woman say that she was not interested in learning African-American history. “It’ll just make us mad,” she said, explaining that she knew the history was not good. She would rather just not know about it.

I thought her sentiments rather unfortunate. The only way America will heal of her horrid racism is by embracing the history that is hers. The embracing would be for knowledge, for understanding, not for criticism or blame. Both whites and blacks in America run from our racial history, to the detriment of our nation.

Krista Tippet, in her NPR program, On Being, recently interviewed Bishop Desmond Tutu. He said in that interview, “If these white people had wanted to keep us in bondage, they shouldn’t have given us the Bible!” The Bible, Bishop Tutu said, is “dynamite.” The “scriptures say that we are created in the image of God; each one of us is a God-carrier. No matter the color of our skin,” Tutu continued, “it does not take away our intrinsic worth.”

In Tutu’s South Africa, most  black African women were called “Annie,” and most black men were called “boy,” because, the white people said, their African names were too difficult to pronounce. It was humiliating for the blacks, and yet, Tutu said, there was a need to forgive.

The scriptures demand it.

Interfaith cooperation helped make forgiveness the goal in South Africa. “God faith inspired people to great acts of courage,” he said. God faith made people to want to fall into the arms of forgiveness instead of the arms of revenge and enmity.

In the 1990s, there was, according to Tippet, a “heart-felt apology” on the parts of some in South Africa. “Just as we were recovering our breath, the God of surprises” revealed himself, said Tutu. Apartheid could not be justified scripturally. Those white clergy who said that suffered expulsion from their churches. No matter. What they stood for was right, and they were involved in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which Tutu chaired. People who had been damaged by apartheid came forward and told their stories. For many, it was the first time they realized how horrible apartheid had been.

Tutu said, “I was amazed at how powerful it was to be able to tell your story.  You could see in the number of people who for so long had been faceless…there was something to rehabilitate them. It was a healing thing.”

Tutu related the story of a young black man who had been blinded by police officers. After he told his story, a member of the Commission asked him, “How do you feel?” and the young man said, “You have given me back my eyes.”

When victims meet the perpetrator, Tutu said, they have a chance to drain the bitterness and anger out. Healing becomes possible, for victim and for oppressor. “We discovered…despite the fact that it was not a requirement…those who heard would turn to the victims, and say, “Please, forgive us,” and almost always, the victims would.”

What would happen if such commissions were held in America? We continually sweep the horrors of racism under the rug, all of us, black and white, and as long as we do that, there can be no forgiveness, no healing.

Tutu says that when he is asked if South Africa has achieved reconciliation, he asks them to look at Germany. “In Germany…where there are people who are speaking the same language, they are still alienated.”

Forgiveness…works.

In South Africa, in spite of many different ethnic groups, with people speaking many different languages, reconciliation has been achieved. “The promotion of national unity, reconciliation, has been set in place.” It is not complete, but reconciliation is a “national project.” It is a process, he says, a process which America has never engaged in.

Tutu says the world in general and South Africa in particular, has underestimated the damage apartheid has imposed on the psyches of the people, both black and white. The same can be said for what American racism has done  in our country. The cloud of white supremacy and the underlying belief of black inferiority has taken its toll. It has done much damage.

America has not dealt with racism; she has not dealt with the damage done to a nation which has made one race think it is superior, and the other, grossly inferior. Tutu says South Africans are damaged. So are Americans.

It took a lot of courage for Bishop Tutu and others to call for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Forgiveness is a process, not an event. The first step, it seems is for the victims of horrid racism to be given a chance to tell their stories. Amazingly, anger dissipates. There is room for God, who, ultimately, is in charge.

It would be a wonderful thing if America had, long ago, made room for the God of surprises. God wants his people to live together. God wants forgiveness, wants us to give and to receive forgiveness. There is a beauty and a power in forgiveness.

The problem is not God. It is us…

A candid observation …

 

Landmark Case Addresses Racial Bias in Hiring

State Seal of Iowa.
Image via Wikipedia

In his book, Faces at the Bottom of the Well, the late Professor Derrick Bell argues that racism is permanent; in other words, it will never go away.

That thought registered today as I read about a pending case that is being decided in Iowa.  In a story posted on Yahoo News, the Associated Press reported that there is a class action suit that has been filed against the entire state government of Iowa. (http://news.yahoo.com/denied-jobs-blacks-iowa-test-bias-theory-080416196.html). The plaintiffs – 6,000 African – Americans – have charged that they have been denied jobs on the basis of their race.

The plaintiffs say that the racism has not been overt; rather, they say potential state employers subconsciously harbor feelings of racial bias, a charge they back up by the results of a test developed by University of Washington psychologist Anthony Greenwald, called the “Implicit Association Test.” According to the AP report, results of that test taken by white employers show a high degree of racial bias – though many of those who took the test would not have considered, or do not consider, themselves to be racist.

The words of Derrick Bell come back: racism is permanent. It is not going away.

I thought of his words when I listened to Dr. Jeanne Middleton Hairston, who is the national director of the CDF Freedom Schools® program. An historian, she was giving an absolutely mesmerizing summary of some things that had happened in African-American history that helped convince Civil Rights workers in the 60s of the need for social justice work to extend to public education. I wondered to myself why it is that what she was teaching is not taught in schools – public and private, but then I had to remember: the institution of racism keeps much of what is true underground.

In the Iowa case, which will be decided by Judge Robert Blink, the plaintiffs could win many dollars from cases of alleged discrimination dating back to 2003, but some say the money is not the goal. What is needed, they say, is a change in hiring practices, using tools which can test or measure implicit bias in those doing the hiring. Test results of people given the test so far show that up to 80 percent of employers have a subliminal preference of whites over blacks.

It is not surprising, but it is disappointing that racism has not hastened from the American scene. I have recently learned that so much about America – even the naming of states in the Union – was based on race. In the new book, Slavery by Another Name, author Douglas A. Blackmon describes how slavery under the peonage system existed in this nation until 40 years ago! The research is riveting, but at the end of the day, it is just so exhausting, this racism issue.

Certainly, scores of African-Americans who have been passed over for jobs by less-qualified whites are not surprised that a test finds implicit bias in those who hire. It is good, though, to have a scientific tool by which to measure what so many people have complained of for so long; the presence of hard data tends to verify what emotional testimony of the same cannot.

It will be interesting – and critical – to see how this case plays out.  My hope is that the judge is able to look at the data and be objective – and be able to withstand the certain criticism that will come if he rules in favor of the plaintiffs.

But my bigger hope is that this racism thing – America’s disease – will be the focus of more scientific study with hard results, so that solutions might be found to problems that have kept African-Americans and other minorities in underclass status for far too long.

A candid observation …