July 18, 2013

Every 28 Hours

The Case of Trayvon MartinCharles Johnson

by Charles Johnson

Over the last week we’ve heard a great deal about how a Florida jury reached a verdict of not guilty for George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin. We’ve seen an international response of outrage over this decision. But something we’ve seen little of is a serious discussion of the daily, centuries-old demonization of black men that festers like a disease beneath Martin’s death. Perhaps for supporters of Zimmerman, Trayvon did or did not act wrongly on the day he was killed, but he had to be guilty of something—some previous crime or sin or moral slippage. For to be a black male in white America means to be wrong, to be less. His essence is that of a predator. The meaning of his life is “thug,” someone about whom Zimmerman could say when he called 911, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something…These assholes, they always get away.”

As a 65-year-old black male, and now the grandfather of a 16-month-old grandson, I know this problem intimately because I’ve been on its receiving end all my life. On my 20th birthday in a suburb of Chicago, I was quite surprised that I had survived that long. Both my son and I have been forced to unwillingly perform in the universal ritual for black males when, like Trayvon Martin, we were stopped by the police in New York and Seattle for simply “walking while being black.” All we have to do to be reminded of our racial wrongness in a Eurocentric society is step outside our door, where the possibility of being ambushed by a new racial wound (or death) awaits us, where someone or something will let us know our presence is unwelcome.

This negative socialization of black boys begins as early as elementary school. In his recent book, Pursuing Trayvon Martin: Historical Contexts and Contemporary Manifestations of Racial Dynamics, philosopher George Yancy observes, “As black, I am possessed by an essence that always precedes me. I am always ‘known’ in advance. Please welcome the ‘person’ who needs no introduction: the black…” He reminds us that “the first American edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1798) described ‘Negroes’ as being cruel, impudent, revengeful, treacherous, nasty, idle, dishonest, and given to stealing.” Or as the anti-racism activist Tim Wise puts it, “Black Males are, for far too many in America, a racial Rorschach test, onto which we instantaneously graft our perceptions and assumptions, virtually none of them good.”

Beneath the legal and political nightmare of the Zimmerman verdict is a deeper cultural, moral, and spiritual nightmare, one that for a Buddhist or anyone else is all about ignorance (avidya) and a long-postponed awakening for white America. “It’s not the Negro problem, it’s the white problem,” James Baldwin famously said many decades ago. “I’m only black because you think you’re white.”

Because of this willful blindness to the complexity of black men, we have now lost two generations of our young people. Martin belongs to a third. In a recent article by Robin D.G. Kelley, he states that, “According data compiled by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a black person is killed by the state or by state-sanctioned violence every 28 hours.” Something I can’t help but notice in stories about the death of black males in that "endangered" range between 14 and 34 is how little their deaths seem to matter. Even if they hadn't gone to jail or been killed, no one assumes they'd be anything more than a low-skill or unskilled worker at best. No one speaks (as Buddhists do) of the importance of their achieving a human birth, or sees them as being unique individuals with promise, talents, resources, or even genius that one day might improve this republic. The underlying, unstated assumption confronting every black boy from a very early age is that they are not going to do anything important or valuable (except perhaps in entertainment or sports, which are another form of entertainment). They are never going to become, say, president of the United States, or a great artist, scientist, spiritual leader, or make any sort of significant contribution to the lives of others. Does anyone other than Trayvon's parents or Rachel Jeantel have any idea what he hoped to one day be? (His father says he dreamed of being a pilot.) Do we ever wonder if black men dream? Do we honestly believe they are more than victims or predators, and that their dreams, intellects, and the daring of their imaginative pursuits could enrich society if they were given the kind of support and encouragement historically reserved for white boys and girls?

We rightly feel anger over all the Trayvons murdered billions of times every day by toxic perceptions and conceptions in the white mind, and then, tragically, murdered every 28 hours for real. Six years ago, in the Ten Precepts that I embraced in the Soto Zen tradition, I vowed to not nurture anger. But every feeling or thought that enters consciousness, even anger, can strengthen the practice of a mindfulness that might extinguish at its root this endless cycle of early death for young black men. Bhikkhu Bodhi once explained mindfulness this way:

The task of Right Mindfulness is to clear up the cognitive field. Mindfulness brings to light experience in its pure immediacy. It reveals the object as it is before it has been plastered over with conceptual paint, overlaid with interpretations. To practice mindfulness is thus a matter not so much of doing but of undoing: not thinking, not judging, not associating, not planning, not imagining, not wishing.

For white America, this systematic undoing of centuries of racial indoctrination, this letting go of the “conceptual paint” it has uncritically absorbed about black Americans, is the necessary first step toward the epistemological humility and egoless listening we are morally obliged to bring to our encounters with all Others. Another name for such selfless, healing listening is love.


Charles Johnson is a professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle and is the author of many books, including Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing. He is a Tricycle contributing editor.


Image 1: Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
Image 2: Mario Tama/Getty Images

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The Dharma of Social Transformation

Copyright © 2013 by Charles Johnson

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DeutscherSchuler01's picture

You would think the black community would be angry over the killing of ANY individual. You don't see outcries whenever a gang member killed a black person. Or when a black individual killed a white person. There isn't some outcry over it.

If they were angry with Zimmerman getting away with the crime, I'd understand. He shot him for absolutely no reason and he should be in prison for his crime. But the thing is, they're throwing race into the mix and not only using their rage against Zimmerman and the justice system for allowing him to get away with it, but against the white race. It doesn't help that the media also blows up anything that will start an outcry. People die everyday by another person, but whenever someone from a certain race kills another person of a different race, it always becomes something more than it's it.

This is one reason I do not like watching and reading the news. Nothing but hatred.

suddharma darshan's picture

Let us not forget that ZImmerman posted hate speech rants against Blacks and Hispanics online. That's a fact. ZImmerman was also arrested for assaulting his girlfriend and an officer of the law. That's a fact. Zimmerman committed perjury in court. That's a fact. Zimmerman's father is a local judge in Florida and Florida as a state has a terrible record on judicial injustice. Florida is also one of the champion Jim Crow law states. The Stand Your Ground Law, in the context of 300 years of laws designed to allow White men to kill Black men at will, is just such a law. It is a law that encourages White men to kill Black men at will because hate mongerers read it that way, and because it provides a written pre-set premise on which a person can force a confrontation with a stranger, then kill him and get away with it.

Zimmerman's case relies on no intent to kill and no racial hatred intent. However, his statement to the dispatcher shows he assumed Martin was being criminal in absence of any witnessed action, and his prior public hate statements, including his statement of intent that "these thugs should be driven off the streets," show his racial hate intent.

Whatever you can say in this case to condone a murder, that can be confronted and contradicted by an equally potent fact. Believe what you want to believe, but the future is decided outside your delusions.

suddharma darshan's picture

The article is excellent because it points to the real problem: prejudice, bigotry, and denial of both. Speaking of denial, about half the nation is bent on slandering the murdered child, Trayvon Martin. Then people talk about facts, and accuse Martiin of having beena delinquent, and excusing his murder on that basis. Really? Because Zimmerman has prior arrests for assault, providing false testimony, assault on a police officer, and several other crimes. Zimmerman also committed perjury in court an was reprimanded for that on record. Now, if I follow Zimmerman downa road and engage in a fight with him and shoot him, does his prior record mean I am not guilty?

Denial is the beast that keeps racial murders going, after 300 years of White-on-Black murders, none of which were ever prosecuted by the State and States involved. The fact is, there have never been lynchings of Whites by Blacks. Black stand an 87% chance of being convicted if accused of killing a White person, according to Justice Department Statistics and several research groups, including the Sotuhern Poverty Law Center and Mother Jones magazine. However, a White person, by the facts of cases and sentences handed down since the Emmet Till murder (and keepnig track) has less than 17% chance of being convicted if accused of killing a Black person.

People talk about facts while doing their best to obscure the truth. It is our international shame that we have for 300 years done this. Emmett Till died after some White men decided to kill him and call it 'justified.' He whistled at a White woman. No one was ever convicted. Same goes for Dr. Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X, and so, so many many others. 50 years after the first March on Washington for equal rights, equal justice, and equal protection under the law, Black men are still being murdered by White men with impunity, and people still look HARD for reasons to excuse these murders.

When have you ever heard a case where a Black man killed a White man and the public came out in support of the Black man? EVer? Never. People, people, people, your dishonesty is your destiny. Only you can stop that path.

suddharma darshan's picture

Blessings to all of you. Thank heavens we are still alive today.

I beg a moment of indulgence from you. Is anyone feeling pain at the unkind words being spoken about a dead child? Is anyone feeling pain for the family who have been exposed to unkind statements about their dead child from hundreds of strangers?

Where is our compassion? Why is it necessary to try so hard to find excuses to condone killing? Why would we ever want to say to someone, "Your pain of oppression is invalid, unreal, insignificant, or just too bad?" Is it ever appropriate to respond to someone's plea of injustice with closed hearts? Ever?

Whatever the details and arguable bits and pieces of a thing, compassion remains central, non-harming remains the first vow, acceptance remains imperative. How well are we applying Shamatha, Dhyana, Metta to this situation?

suddharma darshan's picture

Facts and emotions don't mix well. Mindfulness is based on separation of fact from emotion. The Dvadhevitakka Suttam deals with this issue, for one. Here is the persistent issue: Since the USA was born, and before, African Americans have been getting lynched, murdered, and 'justifiably killed,' by European Americans, and the State has failed to prosecute any of these crimes. We are talking about thousands of lynchings, murders, and acquitted murders. The numbers just don't add up to much in the other direction, however. The number of Whites killed by Blacks in the same 300 years is vanishingly small when you compare the two figures. US Dept of Justice has kept such numbers for over a hundred years now, and we have newspaper archives to evidence the rest.

People say race is a non-issue, that is should not matter. Perhaps so. However, as we speak, 12 Southern states are busy purging their archives of evidence of lynchings and sanctioned murders. Twelve. As we speak, the reports of racial attacks on Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans has risen b y 300% since the year before Obama took office (Southern Poverty Law Center, US Dept of Justice).

Some people prefer to ignore what does not happen to them, lest it disturb their comfort. Some people refuse to believe anything that contradicts their dogmas. Some people prefer to believe that things will 'just work themselves out.' In any case, by no means has the issue of interracial murder, or the oppression of non-Whites in America, of the issue of inequal protection under the law, and inequal justice -- by no means have any of these problems been greatly improved over the past century. They have worsened over the past 30 years, by all reports.

So, now, where is our compassion? Where is right action? What renunciation is appropriate? What is our individual responsibility? We need to address these questions maturely.

bhb21's picture

i was very disappointed with the article. i thought maybe with a spiritual background it would rise above the normal discourse of alludinging that 'most people' are prejudice. this did not even acknowledge the facts in the case. in rough areas is is normal to profile - that can be a safety measure. i would rather clutch my bag than be sorry. one can clutch without overtly casting aspersions. i have done so when certain whites approach me. i think blacks should look look inwardly for purpose to help that portion of our society that needs it - and who would better accept that help more readily.
we are not prejudiced as a society in general, but the media and the jesse jacksons of the world promote that for their own gains.
if we want to focus on improving the situation - lets focus on ourselves and those in our immediate area that we can reach out and touch. generalizations, especially these kind, are not helpful, nor are they true.

Janejenn's picture

Race and racism is a big fat fairy tale - a story we as a society have told ourselves for generations. These kinds of stories (about our separateness, the wrongness or rightness of ourselves and others, our prejudices, etc), and there are countless of them, are natural arisings of the human mind. Mindfulness and the Buddhist perspective can help us start to become aware of our beliefs and see them for what they are and what they are not. They are NOT actual truth. I try to recognize that the tendencies to think in this way are the nature of the human mind. Let's be compassionate towards ourselves and others when we and they are blinded by the trance of separateness. I hope I can bust these beliefs wide open with mindfulness, awareness, and courage to see things as they are. If I hold my purse more tightly when a black man enters the elevator, which I'm sure I have done, I can let this be a wake up call to to my own conditioning. We must have the guts to admit our own prejudices and have compassion for ourselves. With awareness, we can wake up (in my case, over and over and over again!) from the trances we live in.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Racism may have started out a fairy tale but in the ensuing centuries fiction became the facts of peoples' lives. I commend your effort to combat your fear when you find yourself alone in an elevator when a person of color enters. The reality is that racism today is a convoluted Gordian Knot that will take time to unravel and straighten out, perhaps several generations. Intertwined with it are such originally non-racial issues as the economy and educational opportunity.

angusvail's picture

I just read “Every 28 Hours: The Case of Trayvon Martin” (http://www.tricycle.com/blog/every-28-hours-case-trayvon-martin). It made me think about Right Speech. For those who would like a brief refresher course on Right Speech, check out the following: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sacca/sacca4/samma-vaca/index..... Right speech is speech that is truthful and unharmful; it is speech that helps people see clearly the way things are. It is not designed to instigate conflict; it is designed to engage the other person(s) in deep investigation of The Dharma (i.e., not the rules, but the way of things).

The blog is a reflection on the cultural context of the Trayvon Martin killing and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman on charges of second degree murder (the jury was also allowed to consider charges of manslaughter, on which they also found Zimmerman not guilty). The blog opens with the following sentence: “Over the last week we’ve heard a great deal about how a Florida jury reached a verdict of not guilty for George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin.” That final clause is inaccurate. Everyone agrees that Zimmerman caused Trayvon Martin’s death. The question before that jury was whether Zimmerman had murdered Martin. This opening to the blog caused me concern and made me perhaps even more critical of what follows in it, although I am a trained critical reader--sociological training does that, if it does anything, well.

As the blog continues, it points out disturbing aspects of the cultural backdrop against which this trial has played. An unarmed young black man was stalked by an armed white man who eventually shot and killed him. His crime appears to have been nothing more than returning to his mother’s home with some Skittles and iced tea. Perhaps the more important crime was “walking while Black.” The history of the United States is a history of racial conflict in many respects. It is hard to consider our country fully without considering the fact that somewhere close to half of all black men aged 18-30 are under the control of the criminal justice system. More black men in that age group are in prison than have attended college. These facts are indisputable. What do they reflect? Are black men more likely to be criminals than Whites, Latinos/Hispanics, Asians/Pacific Islanders, and so on? Most of those incarcerated black men have been convicted of non-violent drug crimes. Do Black people use drugs in higher proportion than other racial/ethnic categories?

The answer to the big questions of frequency, in both cases, is no. Blacks are not more criminal than other groups; nor do they use drugs in higher proportion. Does that end the conversation? No, it doesn’t. It opens another can of proverbial worms. Race and class intersect in inescapable ways in the United States, and the crimes that people of color commit are inescapably tied to class. They are crimes of opportunity, as are most crimes. Whites are disproportionately likely to commit crimes of pilferage and fraud; people of color are more likely to commit crimes involving interpersonal violence. Both involve taking advantage of other people, and one group is unquestionably more costly, but it’s not the one you think. White collar crime is responsible for billions of dollars of losses every year, whereas robbery and burglary are exponentially less costly.

How about drug use, then? All people use drugs at about the same rate. What’s the difference that explains so many black people being incarcerated for their drug use? Rich people use drugs in private and poor people use drugs in public places. Rich people use prescription drugs recreationally, and they use recreational drugs in the privacy of their isolated, single family dwelling residences. Poor people use the drugs they have access to in the places they have access to. Both groups use cocaine, for example, but rich people snort it in living rooms and poor people smoke it outside. Rich people use prescription narcotics and benzodiazepines; poor people smoke and shoot the mother of all scary drugs (which is also the most effective analgesic), heroin. Rich people pass joints of legally prescribed, dispensary distributed, hydroponically raised marijuana at parties in living rooms; poor people pass pass joints in the street.

What is the ultimate difference between these two sets of behaviors? It’s not their criminality and it’s not their relative social harm. If it were, Blacks would make up about 13% of the prison populations, not well over half. The difference is the visibility of the impact of their behaviors. The crimes the poor commit, and the drugs they use, are visible to their neighbors. For this reason, among others, they pose a perceived greater threat to the fabric of society, and they draw the immediate attention of the police (broadly defined to include security guards, neighborhood watch activists, vigilantes, and so on).

The fact of racial inequality within our criminal justice system is inescapable. Blacks are selected as symbolic assailants at astronomical rates that have become attached to their skin color in ways that do not apply to whites. Cops don’t shake down old white men in Brooks Brothers suits looking for evidence of embezzlement, although that’s where they are likely to find it. It is in this context that Trayvon Martin, a black kid wearing a hoodie, eating some Skittles and drinking an iced tea on his way home from the store, was identified as a symbolic assailant, stalked, and killed, by George Zimmerman, a man who was concerned that another one of “those punks” was getting away with something. The end of that encounter, as we all know, was tragic and all too common.

Now I return to the blog. The blog’s author, Charles Johnson, a professor of English at University of Washington in Seattle, and the author of multiple books, explores in moving ways, the experience of being black in a country with our history of racial inequality. He tells us of his experiences of being stopped and frisked for walking while black, an experience he has shared with his son. He tells us of the experience of carrying the burden of association of crime and guilt because of the color of his skin. He explains why so many are so dismayed by the miscarriage of justice played out in a Florida courtroom, and he explains how Right Mindfulness has the power to undo centuries of racial indoctrination that have helped to paint the backdrop against which inequality before the law has been enacted. It is a moving account. It elucidates the experience of inequality and explains how it is the responsibility of those who occupy the central position to change their view and allow Black people the freedom to be People before they are black, a freedom granted to whites in our culture without question. This blog is important to read because it makes clear the nature of the experience of inequality. This is truly drawing our attention to The Dharma, because this is how things truly are. Is it Right Speech, however? I suggest that it is not.

The “Every 28 Hours” of the title refers to a claim that, “According data compiled by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a black person is killed by the state or by state-sanctioned violence every 28 hours” (the report can be found here: http://mxgm.org/operation-ghetto-storm-2012-annual-report-on-the-extraju...). The report seeks to classify the 313 deaths of Black citizens at the hands of people using deadly force in the course of the calendar year, 2012. There are unfortunate qualities to this report, not least of which is the fact that it doesn’t say where the figure of 313 deaths at the hands of police (broadly defined) comes from. How are we to evaluate whether the claim is credible. The number may be high, but it also may be low. The fact is, we can’t evaluate the veracity of the number because we don’t have the source.

We then come to dramatic pie charts that break down the 313 deaths into percentages (e.g., age of the victims, percentage of deaths that constitute “excessive force used,” and police justifications for use of force). A highlight of the first chart suggests that “66% of the people killed were between the ages of 2 and 31.” 8% of those were “under 18” but we have no sense of how that breakdown is distributed. We know that at least one of them was 2 years old. Can we reasonably blame the death of a 2 year old on the police without knowing the context? If we compare the next two charts, we see that only 12% of these deaths are not considered “excessive force”, but in 13% of the cases the suspect fired a weapon, and among the 22% of “other allegations”, suspects drove cars at the officer(s) involved in the shooting, they pointed guns at the officer(s) involved, they lunged and/or reached for the waistband. Even if we only consider the cases where the suspect fired a weapon, 1% of those cases would still be considered “excessive force.” We can argue whether lethal force might always be excessive, but if it is ever justified, being under fire is a clear case. These comparisons do not hold up to even mild scrutiny, but again, we have no sources to evaluate the “figures” in the report.

I don’t know if the people from the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement have misrepresented their data in their report. I do know that the numbers it reports are not verifiable. I know that it uses dramatic colors and scientific looking but unsourced charts to insight a dramatic emotional response. It may be truthful and it may be spoken at the right time. Is it spoken affectionately, beneficially, and with a mind of good-will? Read the report and evaluate the answer to those questions yourself. My experience of reading the report is that it is none of those things and its sourcing would not pass muster for publication in any scholarly journal. My experience of reading the blog in Tricycle is that most of it constitutes Right Speech, but it is titled and sourced with the intent to convince through righteous indignation. Righteous indignation often feels justified to the person engaging in it. I feel the pain and anger that underly it, making it effective toward those ends; I understand the origins of that pain and anger; I understand the need to share and explain them. For all these reasons, I say that this blog is important and valuable to read. At the same time, I suggest that flaws that undermine its title and sourcing also undermine its credibility. I think that’s a shame because those undermine the impact it might otherwise have.

In the Dharma,

D. Angus Vail, MA, PhD

willtheo's picture

what boggles me is how we refuse to acknowledge evidence regarding the Trey Von marten case, and blindly accept that Trey was killed because he was black...
As buddhists, its important to inquire into the nature of 'what is' and be courageous enough to dismiss the dominant prejudice concerning a specific event...Ignorence is specific to believing something to be real, when it isnt necessarily so..
So, is it really true this was a race relations case? Is it really true Trey was killed because he was black?
Zimmerman was acquitted..Does this mean the jury was biased?
As Buddhists, can we entertain 'negative capability'? can we entertain an open mind? Perhaps, Zimmerman acted in self defense? Perhaps Zimmerman wasn't a bigot? Perhaps Trey assaulted him?
What does being assaulted have to do with being black?
As Buddhists, we need to use the mind to dissect the ignorance that pieces various parts together to create an ideological spin, a belief..We need to accept an open mind...
Is is possible Zimmerman acted in self defense?
We need our negative capability, our capacity to balance opposites, to be a scale of justice..And not to sit on either side, on one extreme.
Can we be sure this event was a race relations case? Or do we want to build up a case for our beliefs?
As Buddhists, we need to appreciate facts and evidence..And there is much evidence to say that Zimmerman was given a just sentence..Can we see this - as Buddhists? Do we need to argue about it?
Lets start here with some evidence: Zimmerman was aquitted..On all counts..
And watch this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ebu6Yvzs4Ls

Trying to indict a peruvian who grew up with blacks as a white racist is ridiculous..Furthermore, theres alot of evidence that Trey had a history of theft and drug abuse..( Watermelon and skittles are used to make "Lean"....)
Trey was killed because he viciously attacked Zimmerman...The jury aquitted him based on extensive evidence that proved Zimmerman acted in self defense..Why cant we accept facts?

suddharma darshan's picture

Zimmerman was asked not to follow the minor child he killed. You see no problem here? Okay, then.

You are speaking in defensive mode, about how stupid can people be not to agree with you, and then present story full of supposittion and circular reasoning. You do realize that there are very strong arguments head-on to what you say?

Do you understand how denial operates? I could argue back. What difference would it make? What does that tell you?

The Dalai Lama says violence is never appropriate. "First do no harm." There is a good old one, "Judge not lest ye be judged." It is really bad karma to second-hand slander the dead, and is grievously poor taste in consideration of this child's family.

A child was killed who went out to get Skittles by a man who followed him.

Rob_'s picture

For a person who talks so much about evidence, you present none to support your conclusions. And by the way his name is Trayvon Martin. It's real simple, his name is in the title of the article. You can't even manage a modicum of respect.

You say, "Trying to indict a peruvian who grew up with blacks as a white racist is ridiculous" He wasn't indicted for being a racist. He was indicted for shooting Trayvon Martin. If you wish to create a straw man argument that everyone thinks he was killed because he was black, by all means. It offers little for real discussion.

Your claim that there is "a lot" of evidence that Trayvon Martin has "a history of theft and drug abuse" is a gross exaggeration. I suppose in your eyes it's better to demonize him. Where's your evidence Mr. evidence man?

You can ignore that there were some neighbors that had a problem with Zimmerman's zealousness in being a neighborhood watch volunteer. Ignore that Zimmerman was following Trayvon Martin, told not to follow him and yet still did. Zimmerman also had past brushes with the law. A restraining order was filed against him by an ex-gf, and he had an altercation with a police officer.

"Trey was killed because he viciously attacked Zimmerman...The jury aquitted him based on extensive evidence that proved Zimmerman acted in self defense..Why cant we accept facts?"

You have a problem with facts yourself. Because Zimmerman was acquitted does not prove he acted in self-defense. There wasn't enough evidence to support a conviction of murder or manslaughter. Your claim that Trayvon Martin "viciously" attacked Zimmerman has not been proved. We'll never know exactly what happened. Who really provoked the confrontation? I can't prove it, but I feel comfortable saying Zimmerman got the whole thing rolling. And following someone certainly isn't going to make that someone feel comfortable. And as a young black male in America, how would you feel being commonly treated with suspicion in so many public situations in your life?

suddharma darshan's picture

Yes, very good point.

sallyotter's picture

I am a 73yo southern white woman. I was raised in a WASP family, with daily Black contact. One of my earliest memories is sitting at the dinner table in my highchair, a harvest meal feeding workers and family at separate tables. I was having a tantrum because Ida, my beloved caregiver and friend, couldn't sit and eat with us. It became her duty to explain to me that it just wasn't done. The message was that Blacks were inferior. I can't stress enough that those attitudes become deeply imbedded.

Thru Buddhism, mindfulness meditation, I have learned to face the dark truths about myself without judgement. I recognize the prejudice and don't act on it to the best of my ability. I'm working on seeing every sentient being with Buddha Nature.

Race is such a complex issue. We have to learn to discuss it without becoming defensive or trying to be politically correct. It will take courage on both sides, and a willingness to be open; a willingness to look at ourselves and accept what we see. Maybe we're getting closer to that point.

jdkees's picture

I sort of wish we could stop dividing human beings into separate races. In Anthropology, they look at clinal variations which examines allele frequencies. Evidently, race is biologically meaningless. There is no way of defining discrete racial units. Race is unequivocally a social construct. If anything, we are all Africans. That is our collective history as Homo sapiens. Skin color was an adaptation directly related to how close or far away we were from the equator.

It's so depressing that we create these walls between us. Hopefully, we can take a look at this whole "stand your ground" nonsense. One should always retreat, if it's an option. Clearly, America has an issue with guns. We have a sick, long-standing love affair with easily-operated devices which are brilliantly efficient at ripping holes into human flesh. I'm from the South, and this fetish for guns disgusts me. George Zimmerman strikes me as a bit of a douche bag. If he hadn't been carrying that gun, Trayvon would be alive--If only Trayvon would have ignored that douche bag and simply walked home, he would still be alive. In this country, I now assume that everyone is carrying a loaded pistol. If someone is following me, I walk home as fast as possible. I assume if I attack my follower, I'm likely to take a bullet in the chest. I'm about ready to leave this country, once and for all.

lemonchiffon56's picture

Although guns are a big issue in the US, I think it's more of a problem that people's belief systems about who is a viable human being and who deserves respect is a much bigger issue. Instead of seeing that all life is precious, we judge by strange criteria what is GOOD and what is EVIL!!

Our whole country has been built on racism, blood-shed, and rankism. It doesn't help that we're also capitalists who do not plan for what is best for the needs of all people living in our country.

For me, the work starts in myself. I have to be honest about my privilege from birth for being born a member of an unoppressed group. I then have to look at how this has given me an edge over other groups so that I can stop using my privilege over others.

Next, I have to look at how I live my life, who I choose as friends, how I treat others in all aspects of my life, and shut up and listen to those around me to see how they feel.

If someone feels slighted or offended by what I've said or done--even if I can't see what that might be at the time--I still have to take some responsibility in having made that person feel bad and try to make amends.

Lastly, I have to continue to learn. I have to keep reading about the lives and conditions of others, interact with people in trying to enact positive change. I need to go out of my comfort zone and do out in my community and share what I've learned with others.

As a teacher of persons living with disability, I also bring much of this to the classroom for discussion. My students know what it is like to be marginalized and have greater insights than I sometimes on what is going on in the background of many issues in this world today.

goodwynmatt's picture

I'm not sure about the part -- " No one speaks (as Buddhists do) of the importance of their achieving a human birth, or sees them as being unique individuals with promise, talents, resources, or even genius that one day might improve this republic."
This is a bit condescending and very much not true.
There are plenty of other people and groups other than Buddhists that feel this way.
Other than that, I think this is a good article, but you could have stuck to the Bhikkhu Bodhi quote a little closer. The piece about ignorance is right on the money.

nikosleverenz's picture

Thank you for posting this, and deep gratitude to Charles Johnson.

Rehn's picture

I am a white man, and I want to praise Dr. Johnson. This is a wonderful piece. It should be copied and read in schools, churches, and temples, There should be television programs discussing this piece. It is an important topic. I work at a university, and I see the self doubt that black men have because of the underlying racism that exists in the United States but is not discussed in public. Even as the president stated, women use to clutch their handbags when he entered an elevator. The racism is there--we are simply afraid to admit it.

nochipa's picture

Rehn, you might also be interested to read Brent Staples' essay "Black Men and Public Space." (It's easily located online.) I've been teaching it in my 1st year college writing classes for years. This underlying racism IS discussed in public all the time--or perhaps more accurately, the issue is raised, but not seriously discussed. It is often brushed aside with accusations of "playing the victim" or intransigence and a refusal to "move on" (though how one might move on from their daily reality is beyond me). There is a lot of denial among white America that race is still a relevant issue; likewise there is this skewed idea of "color-blindness" that I've heard many claim. This "color-blindness" often amounts to denial as well inasmuch as claiming "not to see race" is delusional and ignores the baggage that follows us around doggedly, shaping our interactions whether we acknowledge it or not.

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

Just came across this relevant comic..

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

Thanks for sharing this Staples essay. The recent Zimmerman verdict is a real wakeup call. We, and our institutions, are clearly not as progressive and high-minded as we would like to think. We are forced, now, to make a realistic reassessment. Few racists avow their racism. And seeing in terms of race (or, perhaps, just seeing race), as Charles Johnson does here, is not necessarily something that we should avoid. It can be quite illuminating.

marginal person's picture

Who exactly thinks US institutions are progressive and high minded? Did you personally need a wake-up call? I find comments are more genuine and heartfelt if a person can speak from her own experience as much as possible.
An added benefit would be a lot less fluff.

Dominic Gomez's picture

As a man of color in the Pacific NW my observation and experience is that ethnicity catches people off-guard when it doesn't match the expected stereotype. In the lay organization I practice Buddhism with (Soka Gakkai International-USA) the last thing we notice about each other is our many different skin colors.

marginal person's picture

When you say "..the last thing we notice about one another is our many different skin colors", you imply that you know the innermost feelings of all in your group about skin color
That is not possible Dom.
I think you have tendency to make these large unverifiable statements about "Buddhism", "Dharma", " Universal Law" etc.
In my opinion, when you do this it tends to invalidate much of what you write.
I have benefited by becoming more aware of my own sweeping generalizations.

Rob_'s picture

Dominic is the self-appointed P.R. person for Buddhism. He offers us his trite and vapid statements of what Buddhism is. I expect he'll eventually tell us Buddhism is a floor mop. "It will mop your illusions away!"

suddharma darshan's picture

No problem: Buddhism is a floor mop. Cool.

Hostility hostility.

Dominic Gomez's picture

As you are free to view things, Rob_.

Dominic Gomez's picture

It's a matter of bringing forth our innate humanity, MP. That's what the practice of Buddhism empowers people to do.

marginal person's picture

My point was you cannot know the innermost feelings of the people in your group regarding skin color. The human heart is a mystery. People are a mystery to themselves. To profess knowledge that you don't have tends to invalidate your entire comment
.

Dominic Gomez's picture

My experience is from talking with the other Buddhists I practice with. Our discussions tend more on how we overcome suffering and become happy through our practice than dwelling on externals like "you're white, I'm brown, he or she's black", i.e. dualism.

Rehn's picture

I agree with you. I'll look for the Staples' piece. I advise and teach Freshman Seminar courses. I might be able to use it.

Rehn

volarne's picture

I am disturbed not by the intent of combating racism from a Buddhist viewpoint, or by the fact that it exists and may very well of played a large part in this case, at least as large as it does in every day life. I am disturbed that this blog is presented from a 100% right/wrong perspective. Black = Righteous/oppressed and should be presumed Innocent, White = Wrong/Predatory and should be presumed Guilty.

This is simply racism reversed, using past injustice to justify a complete inversion via appeals to social 'political correctness'. Are there white people who are racist and stereotype/mistreat non-whites? You bet, no one in their right minds would deny that. But are there are also young black men who wear hoodies up to hide their faces while they do stereotypical 'bad' things? Also yes... although we often have to be careful how exactly wesay that, don't we?

This article simply attempts to polarize people via the exact 'painting with a wide brush' attitude that it claims need to be dismantled. There is no "White America" that needs a particular course of action to make it 'ok', anymore than there is a "Black America" full of hoods/gangsters/criminals. There are only flawed people who make wrong decisions all too often.

I applaud using Buddhist philosophy to attain equality by addressing that we are all people with unique background influences, some of which are very misguided or out and out wrong. I detest using Buddhist philosophy to place racial blame on an entire segment of society (white/black people) because _some_ of them are idiots.... especially when the justification for this blame is effectively - "that's what they do to us". If it's wrong to say "black people are bad, let's treat them like crooks", it's equally wrong to say "white people are bad, because they say black people are bad, so we can treat them bad now too".

zumacraig's picture

This is not racism in reverse. To indicate as such is to ignore the issue at hand and focus on some red herring. I do think we need to get more specific in the dialog though. We are talking about White Supremacy, White Privilege and White Racism.

I for one am losing all hope of any change in this world of suffering as I read the comments on this and other news sites about the case and Obama's comments. The inability of Americans to think critically, curb reactionary thinking and understand nuance is astounding and will probably be our undoing. Alas, all the good buddhists sit in bliss on their cushions, write tripe for Tricycle and wallow in their negative freedom that comes directly as a result of exploitation of most of the world's population.

nochipa's picture

I think you grossly oversimplify and distort Mr. Johnson's thesis. He is addressing the centuries old "wisdom" exemplified by the 1798 encyclopedia entry describing "negroes." As ugly as it is, the view expressed in that encyclopedia is far from gone. To ignore the history of the black experience in the US, which is an experience that occurred and continues to occur in a society where "white" is considered normative even while "whiteness" and the privilege it entails are dismissed by those who enjoy said privilege, seems like wilful ignorance to me.

Mr. Johnson does not engage here in the black/white thinking you try to boil his argument down to. Rather, he acknowledges the ugly reality that black men understand through direct experience daily in the US. And he offers a signpost toward a way to remove this suffering.

volarne's picture

"Mr. Johnson does not engage here in the black/white thinking you try to boil his argument down to."

Here are my examples to refute your statement, as quoted from above :

“It’s not the Negro problem, it’s the white problem,” James Baldwin famously said many decades ago. “I’m only black because you think you’re white.” - This may apply to some white people, but he is painting all as one, as I stated in my original critique

“We rightly feel anger over all the Trayvons murdered billions of times every day by toxic perceptions and conceptions in the white mind, and then, tragically, murdered every 28 hours for real. “ - By the”White mind”? So all white people think the same way because some act poorly?

The entire “White America” paragraph states that if things are to improve, White America needs to learn they are wrong, presenting that ALL are racists of one stripe or another, even if subconsciously.

I respect Professor Johnson’s personal experience and do not doubt for a moment that he and his family have been mistreated in the exact ways he describes, nor do I dispute the statistics he presents or the historical treatment black people have received, as so eloquently demonstrated via the encyclopedia reference.

I disagree with his lumping all whites into one group and then offering criticism and direction for them to take in order to remove the suffering of the people "they" are harming.... again inferring that ALL white people are inflicting this harm. Stating his case with such extreme generalizations is every bit as racist as the people trying to sell the story that Trayvon Martin was the stereotypical gangster/thug because of his colour.

If it's wrong to assume negative things about a young man due to his colour, then it is equally wrong to assume negative things due to his lack of colour.

nikmasu's picture

I don't think the use of "white mind" or "white America" here is intended to be taken literally (as in all white people). I interpret them to represent the hidden ideology of racism whereby white is taken as the norm, as the neutral, as the "lack of colour" as you say. I don't think the ignorance of "the white mind" in this case is actually about white people, but about the ideology that permeates our country. (Of course not all white people are racist.)

Discussion is healthy. We are interpreting things differently. I sense volarne that you are very passionate about this topic. I humbly offer a resource to contemplate whiteness, an incredible book called White by Richard Dyer.

May peace and healing be our chosen path.

nochipa's picture

Thank you, nikmasu.
I think you and I share an understanding of Johnson's essay and the socio-political context in which it occurs. As such, your comments clarify my point nicely.

volarne's picture

Thank you for the perspective. It came across as very much intended as a generalization or all encompassing statement, however having reflected on your comments, I can see that he may have been using that style of speech to address an overall cultural/historical concern (which I do not deny is a serious problem).

Thanks to all for their comments and criticism of my viewpoints. It is very productive to have people offer alternatives in this way.
Cheers.

Sarah11.11's picture

I have been meditating every day on the emptiness of events to cool the rage that arises when I think about this case and its shameless defense of violent racism. As a resident of Florida I experience this rage on a regular basis whenever I see a monument of a Confederate "hero", a high school named after a KKK member, or a historical site that casually refers to its slaves of the past as plantation "field workers." I am grateful that numerous causes in my life have allowed me to develop awareness of these types of ignorance. I was raised by intelligent parents, I grew up in a diverse school and neighborhood, and I had many positive role models who encouraged me to develop my capacities for compassion and caring toward all people. When I realize that all events have infinite causes, my rage cools and I am able to forgive people who have unfortunately inherited and perpetuated negative attitudes and views.

suddharma darshan's picture

Bless you. Yes, how to calm the krodha of righteous indignation. Wishing you a wonderful path in life.

myers_lloyd's picture

I'm white and just finished reading works by the poet Lucille Clifton. Such is her depth, so manifest is her human strength and truth that I was absorbed by her again and again. Her poetry is intimate, she generously included me in her world--she "died" awhile ago; she lives in me. White swallowed a full ocean of black and came up whole.

zumacraig's picture

This whole notion of 'love' is a blatant capitalist construct aimed specifically at perpetuating a human mind of consumerism and unending craving for sensations that are fleeting. Love surely will not help anyone. A sea change toward ideological awareness, however, might be a place to start. 'Love conquers all' is absolute myth and delusion.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Do black Americans have Buddha nature? Mindfulness of this question is a beginning step towards ending suffering.

bmf6c's picture

Skillful speech is a core tenant of the noble eightfold path. I have no idea what the intent or purpose behind this question is, however, I'd argue that it was rather unskillfully presented given the responses it has generated. The author claims to want to end suffering, but posing the question does not seem to have done that. It is certainly possible that the point the author was trying to make was that we all--including black Americans--have Buddha nature and the recognition that we all have Buddha nature necessitates treating each other with compassion and love. However, it seems to me that Buddhists accept the idea that EVERYONE has Buddha nature--so it seems a little unusual to ask in a Buddhist forum.

Teaching the Dharma is very hard and I think lots of Buddhists have, from time to time, believed that they have the duty, right, or ability to teach (or even enlighten) others. I've learned to resist that temptation, especially in online fora, because there is a significant possibility of getting it wrong.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Thanks for your comment. The question generated soul searching and dialogue. Discomfiting perhaps, but suffering? Questionable.

bmf6c's picture

Dominic, I do appreciate that you've tried to create dialogue. I think that's admirable. However, I do think the post (and your response), is an example of what I said about teaching in my earlier post. You believe your question generated "soul searching." I think that gives the question a level of importance that it does not have, and I'm not sure exactly where you got that impression. I don't recall any of the posters saying that your question caused them to search their souls. I think the shooting, the trial, the aftermath, and perhaps the original article are the more likely causes of any "soul searching." I daresay many Buddhists were already thinking about these things in the context of the death of Martin long before your question. I've been thinking about these things a lot and many of the posters said that they were ALREADY thinking about them. (Again, I do grant you it prompted dialogue.)

As for your comment regarding suffering, I think you're hair splitting. What is the difference between discomfort and suffering? And, more importantly, how in the world would you know what constitutes suffering for someone else? How would you know what someone else thought or felt when they read your comment? To my mind, that's the core of the issue here. You feel or believe that you were doing some good by raising the question and it seems in your desire to raise consciousness you were willing to risk some hard feelings. I'm African American and I can assure you the question certainly DID NOT fill me with glee. I think you need to own, versus push away, the largely negative way most here have responded to your comment. I'm not suggesting pain cannot be a good teacher. It can be, but I think it takes an exceedingly skillful teacher to do that. You might be such a teacher. You might be able to use pain to teach on other occasions, but I think you just missed the mark here.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism does not hide from the truth of samsara. Trayvon Martin's death can be yet another opportunity for us as Buddhists to look realistically at the societal suffering spawned by America's karma of (ethnic) ignorance.

bmf6c's picture

Dominic, I agree with the sentiments you've expressed, but your post didn't say Martin's death "can be yet another opportunity for us a Buddhists to look realistically at the societal suffering spawned by America's karma of (ethnic) ignorance." That post would probably have netted a very different set of responses. You asked whether "black Americans have Buddha nature." If I hadn't seen your posts in another forum and my practice weren't far enough along that I could respond mindfully, I, as an African American man that has been profiled by police, whose father was the victim of police harassment, etc., well, I might have been apoplectic after all of the other drama regarding the verdict to see someone questioning whether I had Buddha nature. And what about someone new to the forum (black or not) that might see your question? How might they feel in a world where there is so much prejudice? In any event, I do want to thank you for trying to raise the issue and practicing engaged Buddhism. I believe it's critically important for Buddhists to step up into the public sphere. Be well.

marginal person's picture

A good question can focus our attention on some detail we may have overlooked. The only discussion Dom' s question generated was the level of stupidity, insensitivity and inanity of the question itself.