Saturday, March 31, 2012

Profiling Fatality 2: More on Trayvon Martin

When is it okay to use deadly force? My local paper asked that question of its readers. The paper, The Winston-Salem Journal, printed three responses:
Harvey Pulliam, Jr. said:
I will not seek permission from anyone to use deadly force to prevent bodily harm from being inflicted on either my family or myself.
I shall not seek permission to exercise my endowed rights in using deadly force to repel any threat to my life and liberty, and limb. Be warned that I will not hesitate, if threatened, to exercise any and all of these rights, and use whatever force is necessary to remedy the situation, should it occur.
William Sams said, “When your life or property is threatened.”
Louis Jones said:
Citizens should only be allowed to use deadly force if they are facing possible mortal danger to themselves or their loved ones. If they fear for their lives or anyone else’s with them at that time, they should definitely feel justified in using deadly force.
Protection of one’s self, property and/or family to me is a high priority.
What constitutes a threat? Were we a threat the day Ronald and I exited the movie theater and a carful of young white people attempted to run us down? (See my post from 10/7/2011 Do the Right Thing What was it about us, a middle aged interracial couple, holding hands and walking through the parking lot, that made that white woman and two white men decide we were threatening and that caused them to use deadly force in the form of a car to pursue us? Is it because we are different?
Or were they a threat to us? Should we have been carrying and engaged in a shoot out in the theater parking lot?
Was Trayvon Martin a threat for walking back to his father’s house with a packet of skittles and a bottle of iced tea? Was it worth trailing him, confronting him, scaring him, and shooting him?
Our neighborhood HOA had an email exchange a few days after Trayvon was shot dead. A man was walking in the neighborhood and carrying a clipboard. “Call the police immediately,” one neighbor advised. Another said, “Is he carrying skittles?”
Even though I was the secretary of the organization last year, I refused to engage in the dialog. It left me feeling ill and wanting to divorce myself from fellow man. One of the neighbors, an octogenarian, reported a few minutes later that she had walked down her driveway and asked the man what he was doing. He said he was dropping off flyers for a landscaping company.
What have we come to when people can’t walk down the street without being perceived as a threat? What’s going to happen when everyone is armed and dangerous in a society that considers passing on the right or driving too slowly a personal affront?
People often perceive threat where there is none. They look at people who are different than they, and their difference scares them. A teen walking down the street, in daylight or at night, is not a threat. Even a group of teens walking down the street is not a threat. People go outside and go from home to school to friends’ houses to the mall and to restaurants. Sometimes they just want to walk around. Is there any law against that? Not last time I checked.  What if it were your child with his or her group of friends? Would you want other people to perceive them as a threat and possibly use deadly force against them?
Now, if a teen or adult is circling a house, looking in windows, and trying the doors, maybe that person is up to no good, and the police should be called. But does he live there and he forgot his key?  Is it your job to confront him and find out? Of course, sometimes the police don’t always act as stewards of good will either.
Henry Louis Gates, a Harvard professor, famously returned to his home after a trip and discovered his door was jammed and couldn’t be opened. A neighbor called the police because Gates, a fifty-something-year-old black man who walked with a cane, looked suspicious. He had lived in the neighborhood for years, but his neighbor didn’t recognize him or know him. He was different. The police were confrontational, and Gates lost his patience. After all, he was at home, he was tired from traveling, and he felt the police acted in a racist manner. He was arrested.
I know this about people: they feel most comfortable with others who are just like they are. That might mean they seek people who are ethnically, economically or educationally the same.  Most people won’t notice this, but I do, because I am half of an interracial relationship, and I can tell you without hesitation after thirty-six years of experience that we don’t fit in most social situations. One of us is often the lone minority in the room. Mostly Ronald finds himself as the sole black man at a function. Sometimes I am the only white woman. Or we are the only mixed couple in more diverse crowds. Both of us feel comfortable in these situations, but it is hard not to notice other people’s discomfort. Suddenly they find themselves wondering what to say, if they are offending someone, or worse yet, they feel offended by us.
Sometimes complete strangers grill us about our life. “What did your parents say?” they’ll ask. We’re old enough to be grandparents (no, C&M, I’m not hinting). Does it matter what our parents thought? Mostly we end up in a lively question and answer session about our life. We don’t mind answering the questions, but it hardly ever ends up that the person asking them decides that s/he wants to see us socially again. The discomfort doesn’t go away. We might as well be a goat and a dog walking side by side.
Harsh, you say. Yes, I’ve grown cynical. I’ve seen too much. I see how dangerous it is to be viewed as different even if we aren’t so different.
I remember that car swerving toward us in the theater parking lot because we are different. Trayvon was viewed as different, too, and Zimmerman reacted with deadly force.
(Excerpt from essay, What’s Race Got to Do with It?)
A lot of white people say they aren’t racist. They take a colorblind approach, too, believing that race or skin color no longer matters. They believe all Americans have equal opportunities to live, work, worship and socialize wherever they choose.  They give reasons that people of color don’t succeed, such as “They don’t try” or “They like getting a free ride.” They don’t support affirmative action policy and call it a quota system or reverse discrimination. They believe that hard work trumps the race card every time.  They dismiss situations in which hard work doesn’t afford success, often blaming the individual for some hidden failure.
 Colorblindness, the intent of which might be to downplay racial differences, is insidious. Not acknowledging our history or the ongoing effects of forced immigration and slavery assures that racism continues to flourish in our country.  Most black people know this. Their lives depend on knowing it.
White people, regardless of ethnicity, navigate their way through society with invisible privilege that they often do not recognize or acknowledge. Though class and gender differences limit access to certain privileges or benefits, whites can move freely from lower to middle to upper class through education and commonality. I am the child who wore hand-me-downs with parents who did not graduate from high school, but I am also the woman with two master’s degrees and a six-figure income.
Yet blacks, many of whom live in middle or upper socioeconomic classes, are often misjudged – either assumed to have made their money illegally through drug deals or pimping, or they are treated as if they are poor, uneducated and criminal based on just one attribute, the color of their skin.
Ronald, who has often listened to car doors locking, one after the other, as he walked behind parked cars on the way to his own car, once told a white person, “I’m afraid of the same people you are. The difference is you don’t know who they are, and I do.”


  1. Dianne,
    Such a powerful post. Thank you for sharing your experiences--and that of your husband. I do think that especially in the south, the image of a "white" woman and a "black" man still pushes buttons for people. I've had the experience of feeling like my husband and I were a goat and a dog walking side-by-side. And I absolutely think that we believe some people are more likely to be criminals because society has told us to fear men with dark skins. It's all so infuriating, but it's nice to know that we have allies and we can speak out (and act out) against this kind of racism. I just hope that something DOES come of the marches and demands for justice on behalf of Trayvon Martin--and I mean really, substantive change--like better gun control laws and the end of racial profiling (a girl's gotta dream big...)

  2. I don't know how much we can change the fabric of society that is intricately woven with racism, sexism, classism, etc., but we have to keep trying. I don't think the south is worse, at this time in our history, than the northeast, where I lived for my first fifty years. It's different and there are legacy dynamics between races, that's for sure, but racism exists everywhere. Yes, we girls gotta dream big. Thanks so much for reading!