Zimmerman verdict: Sympathy for the bigot?

No one is innocent. Not Zimmerman. Not Martin. Not myself, nor you, dear reader.

I feel for Trayvon Martin’s family, and though white, I do know the experience of being followed around a K-Mart by a store detective because they didn’t like the way I looked. It wansn’t a common experience for me, but it felt wrong.

And you can hate me for it, but I also feel for Zimmerman, though he’s still alive, because irrational fear of others based on the color of their skin is something everyone must fight to overcome – some more than others. Some more successfully than others.

I grew up, for most of my life in a fairly racist community, and my parents did their best to teach me not to judge people based on the color of their skin. It ran in the woodwork. It was tobacco and plantation land, and the “Charm of the Chesapeake,” Calvert County.

President Obama addresses the nation in the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict. (screenshot)Neeld’s Estate was a plantation. The Neeld family still tended acres of peach and apple orchards from the big house on Ridge Road, and it was godawful ugly. James Madison had a beautiful house, symmetrical, brick, columns, built by slaves. Neeld had a big house, wood and witewash, columns, also built by slaves, that looks like someone went on a three-day-drunk before sketching something on the back of a receipt – that was probably for the purchase of slaves.

The dirt road running by it, that would have accomodated the slave cabins, still ran by some shacks and cabins where black people lived. Their children rode our bus, and I knew most by their nicknames, Bobcat and Tomcat, whose uncle drove the bus, and Almos, the brawler. They were nice kids, and sometimes I walked up the hill and past the big house to visit. They never returned the visits, and I did not know why.

There was only one black family in Neeld’s Estate at that time. Soon after they moved in a “rebel flag” went up. That night it came down and burned in the street with the help of some kerosene and a Bic lighter.

I don’t claim to be incredibly brave when it comes to race, though I did call out my good friend one time for repeating some incredibly ignorant BS.

But I see how some people never rise above their upbringing. Most just give in, because sometimes the biggest issues we have to work though are our parents. Rejecting their ignorance and fear would mean recognizing their ignorance and fear, casting judgement on them, our neighbors, our friends and the backward and ignorant culture in which we grew up.

I’m not asking for your sympathy for the Zimmermans of the world, but only understanding, because I also see how the common attitude towards those less successful in fighting against their own ignorance and upbringing tends towards a wagging finger and “tsk tsk.”

There is a rumor that the day of the Zimmerman verdict created a new record for unfriending and blocks on Facebook. I too spent hours that day, somehow, arguing with people from where I grew up.

My contention, on which I don’t see how there can be another “point of view,” is that if  I’m walking in your neighborhood and you arrest my progress, you’d better be courteous and respectful or have a damn good reason to stop me. If I, in turn, confront someone or chase someone on the street, I am the aggressor and whatever follows is at least partially my responsibility.

George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin.
George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin.

I’m actually probably the least successful in my family at overcoming that culture of alienation from “others” – if only because I am the most introverted, and reaching out, whatever the color of their skin, is a learned skill for me, and badly.

It doesn’t help when you find yourself driving through the wrong neighborhood in Northeast DC, stop to look at a map and there’s a guy across the street, stopped mid stride to stare at you and let you know how clearly you don’t belong there.

Yet the recoil, the step backward, or crossing the street, is a step backward in many ways. The Facebook blocks, unfriends and raging debates aren’t helping our nation become a place where these things can be history texts.

I do believe the president made the right move. Struck the right note, and I do hope we can heal somewhat. Healing and leadership won’t come from the career politicians who see soundbytes as part of their political game, or from the talking heads who make money on spinning controversy.

Obama’s words struck me, because it’s only in recognizing each others’ humanity that we can progress in our inner fight against bias and mistrust.

(Feature photo taken by Tim Maier  in Los Angeles at a recent protest.)