Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Moral Gluttony, Murder, and the Case of Trayvon Martin


There is this little joke/non-joke I sometimes say to my wife. I say "oh this racism is killing me!" Usually I'm talking about the psychic pain/violence that comes from witnessing the day after day ignorance of mainstream media, well-meaning but not well-knowing family and friends, and the extensive historically rooted forces of hate that continue to permeate our laws and society. This psychic cancer kills people slowly by breaking down brown people's spirits, until physical illness manifests or some kind of emotional crisis happens where folks just give up and take it and can't care anymore.

Yet it's easier to be able to identify an out and out case of racism leading to mortal consequences when a person dies, like in the recent case of 17 year old, unarmed Trayvon Martin who was murdered because he "looked suspicious." The fact that his killer hasn't been charged, makes the injustice of it all that much clearer to see. Such ease and clarity allows many to feel enough outrage and sadness that certain forms of action are taken. This action in our modern society consists of conversations, Facebook posts, blogging (like I'm doing right now), and articles. Some folks may even sign petitions and write letters to government officials demanding justice. Which is all good stuff. Unfortunately, like in so many other cases, the anger of injustice subsides because time takes its usual sting out of a given event. And we all go back to whatever the hell it was we were mad or sad about before "that one time."

In no way am I writing to say that the situation in Florida isn't tragic or important. It is because many are finally admitting that indeed there is a serious racialized sickness among our citizens. That a man can kill another man in America and get away with it based on perceptions of race makes us wince. It is good to see the attention being given to this case. What my beef (sorry vegans) is with the attention is that the attention is being paid to the drama of the situation. Here in the U.S. we like "wild wild west" types of narratives, where there is a "winner" and "loser" and we can pick a team, root for the underdog, and then congratulate ourselves for having a conscience and not being like "that guy." It's a fleeting kind of justice, that I'm guessing will be the case with the Trayvon Martin story. We'll see in two weeks or two months how dedicated folks continue to feel about the case. I'm not much of a gambler, but I would feel fairly safe betting on the shortness of our attention spans on this matter.

Any armchair advocate for equality could point out that this news story has in its background a paradigm of systematic racism. We can apply simple math to know what we know. Black boy + history of slavery + racialized inequality + guns + system of injustice + fear = a tragic loss of a young life. So now that we know we know, what's next? Do we continue our rants about systematic oppression and guffaw when a "less down" friend or family member doesn't get it? Do we cry privately to ourselves about such cruelty and continue to "forget" to educate our children about racism because their "too innocent?" Do we go to a candlelight vigil one day and the next day purchase products from manufactures/companies that don't provide living wages for their mostly minority workers? No amount of our feeling bad will change a thing. It is moral gluttony at its finest to mentally hump a tragic story like this one, and then be too busy to be bothered to focus on how to actually stop participating in a system that allowed this to happen.

Last year a fourteen year old girl named Yashawnee Vaughn went missing and it was later discovered she was murdered by her sixteen year old boyfriend. Both teenagers were Black, and the case received quite a bit of local media attention. In fact many noted that when Yashawnee went missing it was surprising it got any attention at all considering missing Black and brown kids rarely get the same attention as white children (ie. Kyron Horman). There was a lot of sadness in Portland around this tragic loss of life and the conversation about racism attached to the story was focused on the lack of attention by the police and media on missing children of color. Yet here was another case of a young life being taken, where racism had played its cunning part. No her boyfriend didn't shoot her because she was Black. Instead we had a young Black woman who dated someone who could not show her the love she deserved. Somehow she didn't understand and value herself enough to pick a partner who honored her as she, and we all, deserve. My guess is she, like many young Black girls, was inadvertently taught that her life had less value, simply because of the skin she was in. The revised Black doll experiment by a young filmmaker a few years ago demonstrates this point far better than I can articulate.

Why did we not see the systematic racism that surely played a part in Yashawnee's tragic loss? Because we didn't want to. Because a stark gunshot by some "crazy racist" lets us off the hook in terms of personal responsibility. We don't have to change the way we do things or look at things if there is a dramatic story complete with a villain and victim that happens to be tied into a racial plot. In Yashawnee's case we could tender blame upon the boyfriend or the parents or even Yashawnee herself. But to look behind the curtain of racism to ask what part it played in not only Yashawnee's self esteem, but in her boyfriends actions, was simply not an option. Perhaps the problem is the race factor was too nuanced or subtle to be seen by the short attention span's of the general public. Perhaps we were just too shocked by her tragic death to even notice or think of such a thing. Or perhaps we just liked indulging in feeling bad... just bad enough to care for a few days, but not bad enough to work towards preventing young girls like Yashawnee from making choices based on lack of esteem, that can kill.

Today my prayers go out to all the Black and brown children that are dying from the disease of racism. May we all stop enjoying the pain and drama of tragic stories so much and start doing our part to give our young citizens of color, like Trayvon and Yashwanee, a chance to walk, talk, and live with a sense of value and support.

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