In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson famously wrote: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever.” He was talking, of course, about slavery; and likely reeling from his own ambivalent complicity in the slave system. I can’t think of more apt words to respond to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin murder trial. “I tremble for my country.”
So much has already been said in the hours since the decision. I don’t have any new content to add. I just want to name what the decision looks like to me, because it looks really, really bad. It looks like it’s OK to kill a young black man in the United States of America. Really, that’s what it looks like. It looks like it’s OK to kill a young black man—or a boy—even when the 911 operator tells you to stop following him.
It also looks like it’s OK to kill a young black man in Florida because the legislature passed a “Stand Your Ground” law. But the young black man doesn’t have to attack you in order to claim you were standing your ground. You can start the altercation yourself. You can follow, taunt, challenge, bully and even attack him first. Then, when he fights back—because he’s scared, annoyed, angry, or whatever—or maybe because he feels he doesn’t have any other option but to stand his ground—then you can kill him and say you were standing your ground. Really, you can make it happen just like that.
That’s what it looks like to me. It looks bad. Really bad.
No, I don’t blame the prosecution team for failing to make its case, or the defense team for making its case more persuasively. No, I don’t blame the judge for managing her courtroom the way she did. No, I don’t blame the jury for deliberating in what I trust was good faith. And, while I do think George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin and would be going to jail for a long time if he lived in my state (Connecticut), I don’t even blame him for doing everything in his power to avoid being convicted. I don’t blame the police who didn’t arrest Zimmerman for 45 days after the murder. And I don’t blame the media.
I’m not a big fan of laying blame. I think it’s divisive. But I’m going to do it anyways. I blame White America for a racist history and racist present that make it OK in 2013 to kill a young black man even when the police tell you to back off. I blame White America for a racist history and a racist present that make it possible for us to claim to value and live by—and even love—the Biblical Ten Commandments but simultaneously figure out ways to legally violate “Thou Shalt Not Kill” when it comes to the lives of young black men. I blame White America for not caring enough about the lives of young black men. And if I’m being honest, there is a part of me, like Jefferson, that reels from my own ambivalent complicity in this ugly, vile, racist system.
Racism is bigger than George Zimmerman, the lawyers, the jury and the judge. It’s bigger than Florida. But it’s alive and well in this story which, at least for now, concludes with the message that it’s OK to kill young black men. Racism wrote that ending. And while racism is not the greatest writer, it is utterly prolific—so prolific that we who inhabit White America often fail to notice that the ending is a lie. The truth is that it’s not OK to kill young black men. There’s nothing OK about it.
I tremble for my country, but I don’t share Jefferson’s theology. He was worried about God’s wrath. (That might have been rhetoric more than belief, but it’s what he wrote in that passage from Notes on the State of Virginia.) I’m not worried about God’s wrath. I don’t believe in a God who punishes us for the injustices we perpetuate against each other. But I do believe in a God who teaches us to abhor injustice with every fiber of our being; who calls us to resist injustice with our words, our songs, our bodies, our sermons, our poems, our marches, our dances, and every other tool we have available. I believe in a God who expects us to struggle and fight for justice and to not quit until we have obtained it, even if we know it will not come until long after we have departed from this earth. And I believe in a God who expects us to love one another. I tremble for my country because we aren’t heeding that God. I tremble for my country because we aren’t treating young black men in a way that is consistent with the teachings, the longings, the vision, the commands and the love of that God. We need to heed that God. We need a different ending to the stories we tell of the lives of young black men. We need to stop letting racism write the endings. It’s time for justice and love to write the endings.