About 2 years ago, Brian and I were working our way through mounds of paperwork for IAC, the adoption agency we had recently signed on with. Because we had indicated that we were open to adopting a child who was not the same race as ourselves, we had an extra sheet to fill out – the cross-racial adoption questionnaire. One that has occurred to me a great deal in the past month or so (I can only paraphrase, as I don’t remember the words precisely) was: “Why is it not enough to say your child is ‘no different’ than anyone else?” The idea was that, even if we are able to love a child of any appearance or heritage, the agency wanted to be sure that we were aware that the rest of the world might not see our child the way we saw them – to make sure that the stars in our eyes would not blind us to the challenges a child of color might face – challenges that we had not ourselves faced when growing up.
And so, when President Obama remarked earlier this week that, if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon, I thought – he could be my son, too.
Not that I have been unaware of the hazards of “walking while black.” Very soon after I joined my neighborhood’s e-mail group, I found in my inbox a series of e-mails describing “suspicious” individuals in the neighborhood. For instance, what made one of these individuals suspicious was that he looked to be a teenager, and had an afro. I dropped my subscription, but then picked it up later, only to find that someone had fingered another “suspicious” person in the neighborhood – an African-American male driving an SUV slowly through the neighborhood. Turns out he was one of our neighbors. And we all drive slowly through the neighborhood – it is full of speed bumps.
When I was a child, and asked my mother about the “neighborhood watch” signs in our neighborhood, she told me that it just meant that we know our neighbors and care about them – that if we saw someone committing a crime, that we would call the police. But now as a grownup, I have seen that, all too often, what it means is “we are a community with at least a handful of paranoid individuals, and we engage in racial and socio-economic and ageist profiling.” And, as my daughter and I have been talking about, it is a small step from other-ing a person to making them not quite a person to believing that our fear and their otherness justifies any violence we wish to visit upon them.
Given that George Zimmerman was described in early reports as a “self-appointed neighborhood watchman,” I think that this case gives us a good opportunity to examine the neighborhood watch phenomenon, to ask ourselves how different we are from an East German Gestapo state, when we watch our neighbors and report them to the authorities for the offense of walking or driving down a public street – I suppose the difference is that in one state the “offenders” were punished for their ideas, while in ours, they are punished for what they look like.
I have waited a long time to weigh in on this, because I don’t know enough about the case to give an opinion about “what really happened that day.” And also because I believe that, in the midst of the ongoing media circus, it is important to remember that Trayvon Martin was a particular human being, and that his loss is incalculable not because he “represents” something, but because the loss of any individual is incalculable. Because I did not know him personally, I cannot do justice to this loss. And at the same time, it is important to remember that George Zimmerman is a particular human being too, and not to turn him into a foil for Trayvon. And because Florida state law seems to me to be a major player in this drama – having codified “shoot early and often, call it ‘defense’ and get away with it,” Florida is the latest to live up to our international reputation as a country full of trigger-happy anarchists — which I did not want to end up being the theme of what I wrote about. In the same way that it takes some number of fatal accidents to get a traffic light at a dangerous intersection, it seems that this sort of idiotic law only comes to light in the wake of a tragedy like this one.
Ultimately, I want to keep the focus on Trayvon and George, and on the gospel assertion that “perfect love casteth out fear” (1 John 4:18b) – only when we know one another as neighbors, as friends – as kin to one another through the blood of Christ and the water of baptism – only when we love one another deeply with an agape love that seeks to know another as we are each and every one of us known and loved by God – only then will we be freed from the fear that allows us to track and to kill.
It is not that love is not enough – it is too often we have forgotten what it means to love – or have never realized how broad and deep that call to love our neighbor goes. It is a good first step to say, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin.” To go a step farther might be to tell the story as ones who understand ourselves through the role of Adam and Eve’s 3rd son, Seth: “Once upon a time, I had a brother named George. He went out into the street and discovered our brother Trayvon, and killed him. Was he not our brother’s keeper?”
For Dr. Amy Laura Hall’s entry about Trayvon Martin on her blog, Profligate Grace, click here.