While many of my friends have raised their voices to scream and protest in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin, I have thus far remained silent. I have remained silent because I have been mourning. I have remained silent because I am confused. And I have remained silent because I have not known exactly what to say. However, there’s a “fire burning in my bones” and I must say something.
Like many, I am saddened by the violent and unnecessary death of another American youth, and I am angered at the apparent negligence of the local police department. Again like many, I cannot help but think that race was a motivating factor, consciously or unconsciously, in George Zimmerman’s act of killing Trayvon and in the response of the police. His own rhetoric is, to anyone who has experienced racism and racial prejudice in the United States, clearly coded language for race inspired disgust. Every black male who has lived in the United States as long as Trayvon did knows what it means to be viewed as “suspicious” in a gated community. And the mounting evidence, including recordings of the 911 call and the call made to Trayvon’s friend while running from Zimmerman, call into question Zimmerman’s claims of self-defense. It seems clear to me that George Zimmerman should be arrested and tried. I reserve judgment of his guilt until he faces trial, but there seems to be enough evidence to consider him a suspect in a murder.
Clearly, I assume racism exists and that it negatively affects African-Americans in a way that it doesn’t affect anyone else. If this incident doesn’t make you see that then nothing I say will open your eyes either. And if you do see it, you now have no excuse to work tirelessly to end it.
Having said all of that, I will now focus on one overlooked aspect of the racism active in this story. And it is an aspect of racism that is too often overlooked by even the most ardent opponents of racism in America.
That story is the American myth that violence solves problems, especially in response to problems caused by someone else’s violence. Walter Wink called this “the myth of redemptive violence.” This myth is problematic for a multitude of reasons, but one important one is that it is a racist myth inasmuch as it disproportionately affects African-Americans, especially young black males. Now, this myth is not only an American myth. It finds expression in every culture that I know has ever existed. However, it has especial influence in America as evidenced by our extremely high rates of violent crime.
And, while this myth has power among nearly every social group in American life, it negatively affects young black males at a rate disproportionate to their presence in American society. For that reason, it is a racist myth. It is a myth believed by many young black males in America’s urban centers, and by many non-black males in American suburbs. Sadly, the power of the myth in both communities often leads, directly or indirectly, to the death of young black males wherever they live.
Almost a year-and-a-half ago 18-year old Bobby Tillman was killed at a party. He was literally stomped to death by some other teenagers. His offense? Being the first person to walk by these males offended by being slapped by a girl. In one of the most stupid reasons for someone’s death in the history of the world, these “chivalrous” males refused to strike back at a female and so killed the closest male they could find. They felt they had to somehow redeem their honor by proving they “wasn’t no punks.”
This story has haunted me since I first heard about it. Why? Because I knew Bobby. He used to serve me and my wife Communion when he attended the church I was once a minister at. He spent his time before that fateful party at a church event. He wasn’t killed for anything other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. What defined the “wrongness” of that place and time? The mentality and action of some teenagers who had been taught that “real men” practice redemptive violence. Even if it killed someone else.
Trayvon’s case is not dissimilar. Apparently, the neighborhood George Zimmerman lives in had been the recent victim of several property crimes. People were scared and angry about the violation of their personal lives. So, what did Zimmerman think was the appropriate response to these violations? Redemptive violence. He grabbed a gun, got in his car, and patrolled the neighborhood for “suspicious” persons. Unfortunately, and as is too often the case, the person who seemed suspicious enough to warrant the use of a deadly weapon was an innocent, young black male. Again, living out the myth of redemptive violence led to the death of an innocent black male.
Stories such as these could be retold a thousand times over. It doesn’t matter if the violence is perpetrated by black men, white men, or men of any other race. It doesn’t matter if the violence occurs in “the ghetto” or “the ‘burbs.” It doesn’t matter if the violence is perpetrated by overzealous cops or wanna-be cops. Too often it is young black men, often innocent, who are the victims of the practice of this myth in America. Therefore, it is a racist myth.
This myth must be debunked because as long as it continues to have power in our society young black men will be its primary victims. I pray there will never be another Bobby Tillman or Trayvon Martin. Unfortunately, if history is any indication, my prayers will not be answered. There are many reasons for this, but one reason that is too often overlooked is because we have all bought into this deadly, racist myth.
I believe the Christian story and the example of Jesus point to a way beyond this myth. I believe the examples of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, Oscar Romero, and Desmond Tutu point to a way beyond this myth. I believe that American men need to start looking to these men as examples of the “manly” way to resolve conflict rather than to the characters played by Denzel Washington or John Wayne, the lyrics of studio rappers, or the obsession with military force by our government.
I beg each and every one of us – please abandon your faith in the myth of redemptive violence. Otherwise, there is nothing we can do to prevent the next Trayvon Martin story from hitting the news in a few months.