(Reposted from: http://davidmogolov.com/mogolog/)
My apologies if I’m saying nothing new. This is a moment when it seems like saying nothing is worse than saying something repetitive. I don’t think I could maintain my self-respect if I didn’t speak up. I don’t think I could be content with complicity by silence. I know words aren’t action, but I’ve never known what I think until I’ve tried to write it. I’m just trying to tell you what I think.
In 35 years, I’ve never had to justify my presence on a street. When I’ve made eye contact with a police officer they’ve said hello, nodded, or ignored me. When I’ve been in a space that is ostensibly somebody else’s, they’ve never suggested they were afraid of me. Part of this, surely, is that I’m not an intimidating guy. But a larger part of it, the part I don’t think about it, is that I’m a white man. I’m the person society is built for: I’m “normal.”
I first came to realize this the summer before my last year of college. I lived in a crappy apartment on a busy street in a moderately dingy neighborhood. I came and went as I pleased. I worked late hours sometimes, drank at parties late, stumbled in late. I treated my neighborhood like it was my neighborhood, and that was that.
One of my roommates was Hispanic. Alex had grown up in suburban Maryland. He treated the neighborhood just as I did. If anything, he had more freedom of movement because he had a car and I didn’t. One night, we had a party, and a female friend of ours asked for a walk home and he took her. There’d been reports of sexual assaults, not the sort of thing Alex and I had to think of, but to be asked for a walk home was a no brainer: of course he escorted her home.
After seeing her home, he walked back. This was maybe four blocks away. On his way home he was stopped by the police, pressed roughly against a wall, frisked, accused, denigrated, and sent on his way. It was the first time in his life, he said. I write about this with a certain sheltered horror because I still haven’t had a first time and never will. But I knew Alex. I knew his harmlessness and goodness and the fact that he was just walking someone home to prevent a crime or at least make someone feel safer. He was pressed against a wall like a criminal for being brownish. There is absolutely no other explanation.
My senior year of college, I took a one-time yearlong seminar offered in collaboration between the Departments of Philosophy and Economics at Boston University, with the Institute on Race and Social Division. For a year, we read intensively in ethics, history, economics, sociology, and theology. We read Immanuel Kant and David Hume and Adam Smith and John Rawls and Charles Tilly and Charles Johnson and Amartya Sen. We read papal encyclicals and magazine editorials and contemporary economic analyses. We got to talk with scholars like Cass Sunstein and Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates. We read libertarians and liberals and conservatives. I wrote papers on The Road to Serfdom and The Racial Contract . We were not told what to believe. We argued. We argued endlessly.
I don’t write that paragraph to say “I KNOW THINGS ABOUT THIS.” I write it to say that at the end of all that reading all I know is that I don’t know very much and that I want to read more. I’ve kept reading. I’ve tried to piece it all together. Each book remakes me in a way. I’m reading The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson right now and it’s remaking me again (this book is astounding, and gorgeously written).
For professional reasons I pay a lot of attention to the fate of higher education in America, and right now there’s intense pressure to measure a college experience by what it produces in terms of employment, but I can say, despite my professional success, that the major benefit of my college education was what it produced in terms of citizenship. I am a better observer and participant in our society as a result of what I learned in college, and I’m wary of an our impulse to make education a tool for commercial efficiency. We read much about the death of the humanities (well, people in the humanities do, while others read business journals, I suppose), and I wonder where the stories are of experiences like mine. My education through that single seminar introduced me to entire streams of thought I’d have never known, and I wouldn’t trade any of it for a degree that netted me $15,000 more per year. I know my world more clearly and I better know the scope of my ignorance, and that is worth a tremendous amount more than what I’ve had gained with a Quickbooks course (note to self: take a Quickbooks course).
Today on my way home, I heard a legal expert on the radio saying that the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case was not about race. George Zimmerman, he said, is of mixed race. George Zimmerman’s mother is Hispanic. George Zimmerman’s grandmother was African. This is what the expert said. He said this as if George Zimmerman’s particular racial beliefs are what have troubled people. He said this as if he didn’t understand that what’s really at stake here is something far larger than George Zimmerman. He said this as if, 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, almost 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, and 5 years after the election of an African American President, this trial didn’t suggest that our laws continue to protect white life from black life.
I don’t dispute the courtroom outcome: based on the law and our legal standards, there is reasonable doubt. George Zimmerman may have acted in self defense, narrowly defined.
But if the defense’s argument is true, that he acted in self defense, he was only in danger because of a situation he created, based on his assumptions about a harmless teenager. I have yet to hear a credible argument that the dispute that led to Trayvon Martin’s death wasn’t based wholly, and I mean 100%, on his being a black man. Not even a man. Not legally. If he were white, that legal distinction would matter. A 17 year old white victim is a child, after all, his whole life ahead of him. But Trayvon Martin, 17, was suspicious.
I’m not saying anything new. I know I’m not.
There are people who read this (and let’s be real, they probably said “TL;DR” and moved on) and say, “This is dumb liberal guilt.” And you know what? They’re right, to some extent. I feel guilty. I feel guilty for being able to do everything that Trayvon Martin couldn’t and never will be able to. I feel a bit of survivor’s guilt because this world is sculpted and maintained to protect me, to protect me from him. So yes, it’s liberal guilt. But it’s not dumb. I feel this guilt because I’ve done the work to know that I should.
What do you do with guilt? What do you do when you know the house is dealing you a winning hand, even if it’s only 51% of the time? What do you do about the fact that you live in the suburbs in relative safety from the horror of the daily existence of the violence that defines the life of a huge swath of the population of the most prosperous, scientifically and medically advanced society that has ever existed on this planet? What do you do about the fact that you could easily just shut up and go about your business and never have to think about any of this because you personally have never shot a black boy?
What do you do with the knowledge that things are getting worse, not better, but in ways that hardly impact you at all?
What do you do with the knowledge that parents in Florida, about to send a son off to college and a lifetime of opportunity are instead mourning his murder, when your own kids are safe in bed upstairs and will never in their lives face a neighborhood watch that demands to know why they are who they are where they are?
What do you do?
That last question isn’t rhetorical. Despite my reading and my relative certainty about what’s wrong, I haven’t the slightest notion of what a person is to do right now. I’ve seen many well-intended but vague statements about working for change and examining oneself, and while I appreciate them, they seem short of the mark.
Ultimately, a young black man was lynched in the 21st Century in the United States of America. If you don’t believe that’s the fact, I assure you it’s at the very least the perception. Our long movement as a country away from the original sin of slavery is real but it is not over. We have durable and pernicious inequality in this country, and the response to that ought to be more than to examine oneself.
But I don’t know what it is. Perhaps my reading is incomplete. I want to do something more than feel guilt. I want to do more than wish my black friends’ children the best. But I’m at a loss right now. I know what I believe, but I can’t see the path forward.
I hope somebody out there has a good suggestion, and I hope it’s bigger than a response to George Zimmerman.