By this point, we all know the facts.
A teenager, Trayvon Martin, was pursued and killed. The shooter, George Zimmerman, was acquitted, his claim of self-defence validated by a jury.
We have lined up to state our views about what should happen next: vocal protesters and advocates think that the system failed at critical points and should be corrected. Others are assembling to protect gun rights and the right to self-defence.
In service of these goals, we will march. We will tweet. The US Justice Department will investigate, talk radio will opine, and some laws and policies will hopefully, needfully, be changed.
But when it is all over we will still be left with something else. A set of noxious gut feelings about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman — and where we stand on the race issue.
For black Americans, it will be that aching feeling that someone, in the dark of night can gun us, or our sons, or our husbands, down. It’s that thing my fiancee felt when she looked at me after we watched the verdict, hands held, sitting on the floor of my office.
This is an intelligent woman, law-school educated, but channelling Trayvon’s mother, with a stunned look in her eyes, all she could muster was, “Can they really just kill our kids?”
For many white Americans, it will be a different, though, related sentiment that will linger.
It’s a view that has sympathy for the Martin family, but at the end of the day also has sympathy for George Zimmerman: You know, sue me, but a tall, hooded black man that I’ve never seen before in my neighbourhood is maybe a little frightening. And I don’t know what happened next between Zimmerman and Trayvon. But if, God forbid, I, or my husband, or my wife, is ever in that situation, I might like the right to ... Most would shudder to finish the sentence.
The marches will proceed, and they should. But when it’s all said and done, in the pits of our stomachs, we are still left with this... thing. Two new versions of a very old fear — with a wide chasm in between.
I approached several people who have spent lifetimes building bridges and breaking down walls. I asked them what Americans could do to seek justice in our country and heal ourselves in the process.
One wouldn’t necessarily think of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) as a place to look for advice on race. The convention was formed in 1845 when its members, insisting that foreign missionaries should be able to own slaves, split from their Northern Baptist counterparts.
After that time the leadership of the SBC was at the forefront of restricting minority rights. Southern Baptists were found among the Klansmen and lynch mobs during Reconstruction.
That tragic history is what makes a guy like Russell Moore so remarkable. A white Southerner with a broad smile, jet-black hair, and a ceaselessly cheery demeanour, Moore is the new head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public-policy arm for the denomination, and its most powerful spokesperson.
And, believe it or not, he has emerged as one of the US’s most articulate and persuasive leaders on the issue of race.
It started when he was a very young child attending Sunday school in Biloxi, Mississippi, about as far south as you can get. Moore was playing with a dirty quarter and placed it in his mouth, as boys are prone to do. His teacher scolded, “Russell, take that quarter out of your mouth. You never know if a coloured man touched it!” Little Russell sat, stunned, as the teacher proceeded to lead the class in the famous song “Jesus loves the little children; all the children of the world...”
The experience was jarring for Moore. He told me that even at a young age, he knew those two things — racism and the Gospel — could not comfortably rest side by side.
“I see now that my teacher was dealing with a sort of ethical schizophrenia,” he says.
Since his early days, Moore has made it a goal to understand the manifestations of racism in the American soul and root it out — first as a congressional aide, then as a professor and dean at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
When it comes to the Trayvon case Moore told me that the core problem is that black and white Americans are having two different conversations.
“African-Americans tend to speak about the case in broad social and political terms,” he explains, “but we rarely get to hear their own quiet, personal stories. The real message of the Martin case didn’t hit me until an African-American pastor, a friend of mine, told me that there are some places he doesn’t want his young son to go, because he’s ‘afraid of him becoming another Trayvon’. ”
“These conversations have to be had at the local level, organically, and it can’t be in the heat of nationally polarised moments,” Moore says.
“This man was fearful for his son’s personal safety,” Moore continues. “That hits home for me, as a father and as a man. And it’s the type of personal story that can shatter the myth that everything is OK.”
Conversely, Moore suggests that whites move away from the micro and toward the macro when they consider the Zimmerman verdict: “On the other hand, too many white Americans deal in particulars, without realising that it’s larger than that,” Moore says. “It’s not just about this individual case; it’s about the fabric of American history. We have to recognise that African-Americans see Trayvon Martin’s face alongside Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, and others that most people will never know. We have to acknowledge that in our conversations.”
To Moore, where and how this dialogue happens matters. “These conversations have to be had at the local level, organically, and it can’t be in the heat of nationally polarised moments. We have to take time to invest in preparation. There’s advance work that has to be done.”
“It’s like marriage,” Moore adds. “You have to work on issues in advance, when times are good — not when you’re screaming at each other and on the way out the door.”
John Lewis, the US congressman, who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, with billy clubs crashing down upon him, has seen racial conflicts wax and wane. But for him, the Zimmerman trial was still in a class by itself.
“When I heard the decision, I fell ill,” he told me. “I couldn’t speak about it for a day.”
I asked him what the best way forward was.
“You know, here is the key: to be made whole, we have to forgive George Zimmerman,” Lewis said. “We have to forgive those who believe that what he did was right.”
“I forgave and never had ill will towards George Wallace, or the people who beat me in Rock Hill, South Carolina, in 1961,” he continued. “In order to be effective, all of our actions, all of our organising, all of our conversations have to flow from a consistent ethic of forgiveness.”
Lewis said that he learned this lesson from a man named Jim Lawson, a black Methodist pastor and missionary from Ohio who had spent time in India studying the principles of Gandhi. Hearing about Lawson, Martin Luther King Jr recruited him to journey south, saying, “Come now. We don’t have anyone like you down here.”
“Jim Lawson taught me that any meaningful action on the topic of race must begin with forgiveness,” Lewis says. “Once we forgive, we can encourage the majority population to walk in our shoes — the shoes of a black mother, a black father, a black son, a black daughter. But first, we have to forgive.”
But Maya Angelou offered a different perspective: she focused on how much we are doing right. Angelou — who has knit a fair piece of America’s cultural fabric together with her words, poems — made clear that her heart was broken for Trayvon Martin. Yet it also brimmed with hope.
“Look at the people who are protesting!” she told me. “Look at the people who are standing up for their rights.”
“These aren’t just black people or white people — these are right people,” she said. “These crowds, some of them are 50, 60% white.”
Angelou compared it with the days of marching with King, when Christians, Muslims, and Jews stood side by side, and Northern students joined Southern sharecroppers to demand ever-greater liberty.
For Angelou, this is the key: the fact that an increasing percentage of white Americans now deeply identify with the struggles of black folks. In the wake of Trayvon’s death, “it is not just African-Americans who feel belittled and injured,” she told me.
“No, the desire to understand what happened, to comprehend, to inform, to ingest what we know to be right has finally spread to people of all different backgrounds and beliefs.”
Instead of a national conversation on race, perhaps it’s time for a million local ones. Over coffee or dinner, I’d love to listen as my neighbours tell me how they feel when they see young men like Trayvon Martin, in the dark of night, hooded sweatshirts and all. I’d like to then share a bit of what I know about these boys, who are so much like me: their history, their families, their angst, their dreams.
But maybe it’s time to lay bare our thousands of anxieties about George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, and see where it gets us. In doing so, perhaps we’ll learn more about race, and begin to address our fears.
* Joshua DuBois was President Obama’s first director of the White House faith-based initiative
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