July 18, 2013

Every 28 Hours

The case of Trayvon MartinCharles 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 to 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

More from the Author

A Sangha by Another Name

The Dharma of Social Transformation

Copyright © 2013 by Charles Johnson

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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.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Apologies for sounding impudent in my first post. And thanks for further clarifying Buddha nature. Even as a requisite for human beings to become enlightened, Buddha nature is negated or denied (considered empty) in some circles.

zumacraig's picture

The thing is, the dharma is not hard. Nonsensical concepts like buddha nature make it hard. Anatman, dependent origination...let's get that shit straight. In so doing, the rest will become unnecessary.

zumacraig's picture

Asking ridiculous questions like this is just a perpetuation of suffering. Assuming there is such a thing as buddha nature and actually having the ignorance to question whether another human being with differing skin color has it is insidiously racist.

zumacraig's picture

Are you able to respond with a cogent argument?

Dominic, I'd be interested in seeing how you answer your own question. Do you really not see the implications of your initial admonition above?

suddharma darshan's picture

Your language is inappropriate. Your antagonism is apparent. You are engaged in belittling others on the blog. Ad hominem arguments are against the rules here. Foul language is also against the rules. Please restrain your krodha.

Dominic Gomez's picture

My cogent argument is that I do not practice racism. Your response?

zumacraig's picture

What you write here is not an argument, much less cogent. Aside from that, you may not be aware of your 'practice' of racism, but you are doing so.

The classic question is, as you probably know, 'does a dog have buddha nature'? You, in your delusion, have the audacity to actually admonish those reading this site to meditate on whether 'black people have buddha nature'. Do you not see the context of your comment? The juxtaposition?

Personally, this court case has peeled off another layer of my racism I was not aware of and I've been intentionally working on this stuff for years. I would not ask the question you asked, because it equates black folks with domesticated animals which is one step down from slaves...etc. If you are unable to even acknowledge this critique, your racism is deeper than you think as is your delusion about being some sort of compassionate LS buddhist. That's not even getting into your misunderstand of anatman and the subsequent error in your statements.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Thanks for sharing your views, Zumacraig. No argument there, racism is tough karma to change.

mahakala's picture

Does a troll have buddha nature?

Dominic Gomez's picture

If a dog, why not a troll? If a troll, why not a Trayvon Martin?

Dominic Gomez's picture

How does asking if another human being can become enlightened perpetuate suffering?

marginal person's picture

You're asking the question in the context of a young man's death. The question could be construed as callous and insensitive.
I'm sure you mean well but you just don't get it.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism does not hide from the truth of samsara, MP. Trayvon Martin's death can be yet another opportunity for us to look realistically at the suffering of racism in America.

marginal person's picture

Do you mean the suffering caused by racism? Otherwise your statement makes no sense. ("suffering of racism" means racism suffers as a person would suffer)

Dominic Gomez's picture

"Suffering of" as in the suffering of illness, the suffering of imminent death. Racism as a social illness that negatively impacts the lives of both racists and those being maligned.

garygach's picture

quoting Arlene Eisen, author of "Operation Ghetto Storm," who is a source in Charles Johnson's article : "in 2012, police, security guards and vigilantes executed 313 Black men, women and children. Like the killing of Trayvon Martin, 288 of these 313 extrajudicial killings involved unnecessary, excessive force. Yet only 26 of the killers were ever charged with a crime. That is, the judicial system ruled 91% of them were justified--mainly because the shooter "felt threatened". ... After the Zimmerman verdict, I did additional research and found that of the 15 security guards and vigilantes who were charged, only four have been convicted. And of the 11 police officers charged, none have been convicted."

There's a curriculum based on the report, designed for use in all sorts of educational settings. The report & the curriculum & a current press release are online, at http://www.operationghettostorm.org.

A few other faith-based responsa I've been reading too :

Zimmerman verdict filters into pews & pulpits http://wapo.st/18if6b4

Twitter religious themes on Zimmerman trial http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/07/14/twitter-theme-zimmerman-will-fa...

LeRoy Barber's Christian response

Preaching in the shadow of the Trayvon Martin verdict http://shar.es/kn8gS

bigbaballoo's picture

Blame or anger does not heal.....there is suffering I think we all agree on that 1st Noble Truth......that Trayvon Martin was shot due to the 2nd Noble Truth.......ignorance feeding into fear........the 3rd Noble Truth could move George Zimmerman to recognize he was saved to save others......and in the 4th Truth George Z would denounce gun's, violence and take the path to higher ground........this is not a black and white issue it is ignorance as Professor Johnson stated however his words ring out a deep suffering we all share as sentient beings......

justjeff's picture

I understand this is opinion... I also understand that there are some very true aspects to it. I completely agree that love is the solution to most of our problems. But I also see how much the author left out. I'm not "enlightened" enough to let such a one-sided view go unchallenged. The author suggests the value placed on a black man in our society is a product of the white mind, ignoring the fact that so many of these men were raised in challenging circumstances because the parent(s) themselves, black minds, didn't give the child what they needed to have a sense of worth. The author suggests that only a change in the white mind can lift the burden of centuries of racism but it would be just as easy for me to argue that only when blacks change how they see themselves can white minds be changed. The truth is both need to happen.

mjrisenhoover's picture

Quote of the Day:

“I wan(t) to live in a world where George Zimmerman offered Trayvon Martin a ride home to get him out of the rain that night.”

– Episcopal Bishop Greg Brewer of Central Florida

I too remain hopeful


zumacraig's picture

Scanning the comments under the videos of Obama's comments on the subject...my hope is waining.

mattbard's picture

....when OJ walked....riots ? zimmerman tried in court of public opinion (guilty), the jury found otherwise (all woman jury)..justice? doubtful. rage and violence continue to feed upon itself. How to change this madness? blame to go around aplenty. how must the notion of brotherhood, be valued as society's goal? it should be obvious that it is in our self interest....... i remain hopeful ...mb

zumacraig's picture

'brotherhood' is not in our self interest. what about women? sisterhood?

mattbard's picture

hmmmmm, i am open to better term...any suggestions?

zumacraig's picture

How about 'collective mind' or 'radical interdependence'?

mattbard's picture

hmmmm, collective mind is OK , radical interdependence..well, just plain ole interdependence , works too. I like plain spoken when possible and have always like the Mark Twain aphorism- "never say policeman, when cop will do". Zumacraig, don't sweat the small stuff, u b way too smart. happy trails... .m