by Lawrence L. Graham
According to the evidence presented at trial, Trayvon Martin thought the man following him might be a sexual predator. On the other hand, George Zimmerman thought the young man he was following was a prowler who was up to no good. As it turns out, both of them were tragically wrong in their assumptions.
There’s not much point in rehashing the case. The jury has spoken and under our system of laws, that’s that. Even so, an innocent young man lies dead and the person who killed him walks free. For a lot of us, the conclusion of this case remains unsettling.
Fingers, including the fingers of the Attorney General and the President of the United States, are pointing to the various Stand Your Ground laws; laws also sometimes characterized as “shoot first laws.” But those laws are only a symptom of a much deeper and more unsettling, persistent problem that lies deep in the American soul.
That problem is fear. Fear of the “other” has always been a problem in our country. Sowing the seeds of fear is easy, and there are always people who are eager to do that. Our history is full of it: Fear of dark-skinned people; fear of Irish Catholic immigrants; fear of Jews; fear of Japanese-Americans; fear of LGBT people; fear of Muslims.
The list is not inclusive. But it is illustrative of groups that have been, and in many cases still are not only feared but often hated, too. But it does not end there. Fear and hate become calls to action. So, acting on our very worst instincts, we enact unjust laws for our courts to enforce and make public policies intended to ensure perpetual second-class status for those we hate and fear.
Perhaps the most pervasive and long lasting of these fears is expressed in our continuing national embrace of racism. We have become very good at sweeping racism under the carpet by being polite and politically correct. But make no mistake. The evil of racism is still alive and well in America. We have constructed a whole subtle system to perpetuate it. And the Stand Your Ground laws are just the latest evidence of that on-going effort.
The way the Stand Your Ground laws work is simple and their real objective is pretty obvious. These laws do away with the old English common law requirement to flee trouble if you can. Instead, everybody has the right to shoot first and claim self-defense later. But it is how the objective of these laws is perceived that really matters. They can be perceived as a hunting license for hunting other humans. And anybody guilty of being black after dark can be a legitimate target. So, the real objective of the law, which is to intimidate, is accomplished through that perception.
Nor is this some far-fetched idea. Not when seen through the lens of African-American experience. There is a long and awful history that makes up that lens. It begins with the Constitution itself that enshrines slavery, and counts slaves as somehow less than fully human. And it continues with the Second Amendment, which legitimized enforcing slavery through state militias. And it continues on with Jim Crow laws, school segregation and the on-going efforts at voter suppression. Through that lens Stand Your Ground looks pretty awful. And it is. It is a frightful continuation of the same old fearful, hateful, purposeful perpetuation of racism.
But, Stand Your Ground can also become a reason for a national conversation. Not just about these particular laws, but about our whole system of enshrining fear and hate in our laws, shaming the promise of America, and searing our national soul thereby.
Larry, as he’s known to his friends, has been a parishioner at All Saints’, Atlanta for more than thirty years, where he has served as a chorister and verger. He says he is overdrawn on his alloted three-score and ten, but still enjoys his work as a designer of theatres, auditoriums and concert halls.