Preface: I wrote this post in July, but I never published it. I was worried what black readers would think about me, that liberal readers would think I did not share their disgust, that conservative readers would say things that would evoke visceral reactions from me, and that critics would have ample ammunition for future screeds. I meant to publish this post eventually, but negligence gave the victory to cowardice.
I choose not to let that victory stand. Such a bald confession as I am about to make feels like an act of self-sacrifice, but it is one I should have made months ago. When one has failed the test of martyrdom, St. Cyprian says the best remedy is to go back into the arena. It is never too late. Truth does not care about news cycles.
There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all. Whereas by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God.
– Fr. Zossima in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov
It is too easy for me to be incensed about the tragic death of Trayvon Martin. It is not that I do not have a lot to be incensed about. I am angry. I am angry at the jury that let Zimmerman go free. I am angry at the Florida law for appealing to the Schwarzeneggeresque fantasies of vigilantes, encouraging them to ignore the advice of 911 operators, provoke an attack, and then shoot the attacker. But anger demands an appropriate response. How should I respond? I am tempted to say something on Facebook. Maybe I will post a picture of me in a hoodie, thereby assuring myself that I stand against the institutional racism of our society.
Instead, I have been convicted by the words of Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, who said, “Moral outrage is a form of confession because we hate most in others what we fear most in ourselves.” I could be incensed at the racism of society, but I think maybe I should be incensed at my own racism. Before I call others to repent, I should repent, myself.
I am not what most people would think of as a racist. I do not use racial slurs or anything like that, but the benefits of white privilege have wormed into my psyche in ways that I am not proud of. When a black guy walk walks past my car, I have to fight the impulse to lock my doors. Or when a brown person in a hoodie passes me on the street, I have to beat back the thought that he might try to rob me. I do not have this same fear with white people. According to most media, a black guy in a hoodie probably is dangerous, but a white guy in a hoodie is Rocky.
Tragedies like Trayvon demand that people of my pigmentation confront our own complicity in the system that is tilted in our direction. The fact is that there will be no salvation as long as I focus only on the crimes of Zimmermann or the crimes of society. Fr. Zossima was right. I need to focus on my own crimes. Trayvon Martin’s death, and the acquittal of his murderer, is a call to take a hard look at the baser parts of myself, and to beg forgiveness.
That does not mean that we should not talk about “the issues,” but we should remember that the issues are never separate from the people involved in them. We should talk about social injustice and institutionalized racism, about how we glorify violence and uphold vigilante justice as a noble ideal (e.g. Batman). But talk will get us nowhere if people like me are not willing to confess our passive racism and work hard to disenfranchise ourselves of what injustice has bequeathed to us.
There is another young, black man out there who is going to be executed by a trigger-happy vigilante. I welcome a conversation about gun violence and “stand your ground” laws, but it will only be talk if we – namely, white guys like me – are unwilling to face the sin of “passive” racism and to try to find ways to repent and reverse in some way the benefits that come with white privilege.
The truth is, I killed Trayvon Martin. I killed him by my passivity, and I killed him by symbolic gestures of outrage which, I have used to absolve myself of responsibility for his murder, to avoid facing the fears, anxieties, and assumptions I share with the man who pulled the trigger (Zimmerman). And until I am willing to make that confession – until we are all willing to make it – Trayvon’s death will happen again. And again.