July 18, 2013
The case of Trayvon Martin
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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Copyright © 2013 by Charles Johnson