“You hear the verdict?”
“What did you think?”
That’s pretty much how my Saturday went, in Groundhog Day-style fashion, with one acquaintance after another wanting to discuss George Zimmerman’s widely broadcast acquittal on all charges relating to last February’s shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Among those asking—most of them middle-aged, well-to-do suburbanites of foreign descent—the decision of six Florida jurors was an expected, welcome defense of American values; a brave response to the bullies of political correctness; yet another ignoble travesty for minority groups; and the precursor to blood on the streets. For me, it was proof that white entitlement is so toxically ingrained in our society that it blinds us to the color of tragedy.
The following morning, my friend texted me from a coffee shop in Folsom about his own run-in with a Zimmerman defender:
There’s a douchebag white Fox News fan trying to convince everyone in Coffee Republic’s courtyard that George Zimmerman’s acquittal was a ‘win for everyone'…. [W]hat kind of person talks about the death of a young man armed with ice tea and skittles as ‘a win'?
It’s the kind of person we’re hearing a lot from these days, someone whose true shame runs so deep they only see what they resent in others.
Look, I don’t know what was in Zimmerman’s head the day he followed Martin home from a 7-Eleven in suburban Sanford. I don’t think the references to race in the phone calls Zimmerman made to police dispatchers is enough to indict him as a racist. Personally, I think it’s more likely Zimmerman is one of those frustrated, wannabe cops you meet from time to time, the kind of dim bulb who so badly wants to play action hero that he rushes into situations with a head full of steam and empty of rational thought.
Only in Florida and 24 other “stand your ground” states, these kneejerk vigilantes can walk around strapped—and shoot their way out of the trouble they themselves create.
In this instance, the cost of such reckless behavior was an innocent life. (Anyone who tries convincing me that Martin’s marijuana use made him dangerous needs to look in their own teenager’s sock drawer. Or better yet, go back to 1936, when Reefer Madness wasn’t yet a joke. As for Martin “attacking” Zimmerman, I wonder what most nice suburban parents would want their own child to do if they’re stalked through their neighborhood by a scary-looking guy in a slow-moving car.)
Prosecutors smartly gave jurors the option of convicting Zimmerman of either second-degree murder or manslaughter, but the all-female, mostly white panel didn’t go for either. That’s baffling, but more telling than the verdict is the reaction from the segment of the public cheering it as a rebuke to those who want to make everything about race. But that argument just proves how this really is about race, just not in the way they protest.
Perhaps unfairly, the partially Latino Zimmerman became a stand-in for a certain portion of white America. And his acquittal proved a huge relief to those who aren’t dealing too well with the implications. These are the folks who quietly grumble about the inordinate media attention paid to hillbilly butter-pusher Paula Deen, while also smugly noting a boost in her book sales. They’re the ones who waved away the controversy surrounding the name of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s family hunting camp as “divisive politics.” And they absolutely loved Christoph Walz’s Oscar-winning turn in Django Unchained, but were put off by the vicious, cruel, accurate ways of the characters played by Leonard DiCaprio and a fearless Samuel L. Jackson.
Of course they were. Walz’s wry, honorable bounty hunter allowed them to feel good about being white; DiCaprio and Jackson as a conniving house slave did not (which is probably why both actors were snubbed during awards season).
But I’m totally digressing.
The point is that the ones responsible for most white guilt in this country and during the Zimmerman-Martin saga have always been white people themselves. They are the ones who doth protest too much. And now they’re over-correcting by pretending Zimmerman’s acquittal is an acquittal for them all. It’s really a superhuman feat of narcissism, making a gun-downed black teenager all about you.
(Of the few such narcissists I talked to, those predicting violent riots following the jury’s decision had a certain sinister, even hopeful glint in their eyes. The fact that most protests were largely peaceful—and resulted in fewer arrests than this past weekend’s Rafting Gone Wild event in Sacramento—actually reveals a heroic faculty for tolerance in those we should least expect it from.)
Meanwhile, a crucial debate about vigilantism, gun control and racial disparities in our justice system gets deferred yet again, just so the wrong narrative can be writ large in broad brushstrokes across shrill cable news screens.
White guilt may be a terrible curse, but at least we’re alive to experience it. Martin will never have that privilege.