When one of my editors suggested I write about Trayvon Martin, I wasn’t sure I could do that. After all, I wasn’t in Sanford, Fla., last month, so I don’t know what happened there.
However, I do know what happens in my heart. That is to say, it’s easy to condemn George Zimmerman, Trayvon’s shooter, but how am I different from Zimmerman if I don’t examine my own role in racism?
As a white man, I don’t experience oppression. I experience privilege. Just as Zimmerman was given the benefit of the doubt, society also gives me the same benefit, but with no requirement to earn that privilege.
For instance, in my patrolled subdivision, being a white man means that I can walk our creek trail while wearing my Baylor hoodie without much fear of my intentions being questioned. Should I return from my walk and discover I’m locked out, I can climb through an unlocked window. I have no anxiety that a SWAT team will handcuff me on my front porch as they did Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates in 2009.
If I feel the need for some iced tea, I can ask either my tattooed son or his younger sister with body piercings to drive to the store. My only worry is a possible car accident. I don’t think it’s ever crossed my mind that someone with a gun would follow them out of the store. If they are unavailable for the trip, I might drive myself to the grocery store, where I can grab my tea, consume it, and only pay at checkout. No one will dare accuse this chaplain of shoplifting.
If I speed on my way home and find flashing lights in my rearview mirror, it’ll likely be an officer from my own culture and color — someone who understands me. The officer is unlikely to frisk a graying pinkish man or even give a sobriety test.
Police favoritism has followed me most of my life. While I was in college, some friends and I impersonated police officers. In a later incident I ran four stop signs in a rural community. Charges were dropped and I was forgiven my trespasses.
Like Zimmerman, I got a pass. People of color have had their lives ruined for so much less.
While I enjoy the privileges stereotypes afford me, they come at the expense of others and sometimes they even kill. The stereotypes of the black man in the hoodie, as a gangster, a perpetuator of violence, flood the media, our TV shows and even comic roles from “the hood.” These stereotypes play a role in creating everything from the huge racial disparity in prison inmates to how you choose to cross the street when seeing a minority. It’s all those wrong stereotypes that could make some of us pull a trigger in undue fear.
Zimmerman is the product of the same racist society in which all of us belong. He was bombarded by the same images and jokes that we have all perpetuated.
Martin’s death was not an isolated incident. Unfortunately, neither was his shooter’s heart.
Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist, national speaker and author of “No Small Miracles.” He also serves as an Air National Guard chaplain and is board-certified in the Association of Professional Chaplains. Visit thechaplain.net.