Considering our brother TrayvonBy Stephen Kriss
I live in Philadelphia, a city named by love but plagued by violence. The violence is sometimes plotted, sometimes random, sometimes systemic. With a murder a day on the news and frequent stories of fisticuffs, I become more or less numb to the news. I live in one of the “good” zip codes. I have a security system at my house.
Initially, I didn’t pay too much attention to the story of Trayvon Martin. Shot to death in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26, he was another black kid killed in a complicated situation. He didn’t deserve to die on the street, but neither do the 300 or so victims of murder in Philadelphia annually.
Then I noticed a reference about hoodies. I heard about the situation in a sermon during the Urban Theological Institute’s week of preaching. A few of my African-American colleagues began to blog and write and post on Facebook. They wondered why the white folk were largely quiet.
I’m not making excuses, but I want to make some assertions on the relative white silence. Here’s what I think: We’re quiet because we don’t know how to respond most of the time in these cases, wedged between a social justice impulse and our racialized fears that have yet to be overcome or exorcized. We’re uncomfortable and not sure we understand everything exactly. We keep hoping the police will make sense of the situation, because we want to assume they are on the side of justice. We don’t want to believe racism is so alive and well in America that a black kid with Skittles in his hand would be dead due to a manifestation of stereotypes in a gated community in a small Floridian city.
I often pull on a Patagonia hoodie this time of the year. Though I might try my best to pull off Eminem’s look of angsty white-dude intimidation, I doubt I’m deemed suspicious often.
However, the other night, driving home around 10:30, I pulled into my neighborhood in my Honda truck and was followed by a city cop. I turned into my alley and parked in my driveway, only to have a spotlight focused on me from the police cruiser, who then moved on. It was a strange moment. There are frequent break-ins and thefts in my neighborhood. The officer was simply doing his or her job, but I felt violated. Had I been hoodied up and black, I wonder if that incident would have been different.
President Obama suggested that if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon. I wonder what it would mean for those of us who are Euro-American to feel or say the same thing, to look at the death of this young man in Florida as the loss of a son, a brother, a nephew, grandson. Trayvon’s death is a reminder for African Americans of their vulnerability under a “suspicious gaze.” It’s a glance that begins with misgiving and fear. It’s a gaze that comes not only from white folk but is so widespread that it’s embedded across racial boundaries.
Maybe we are all like Cain, tied to a legacy of racism that took Trayvon’s life. I wonder if his blood cries out to God as a victim of what has been termed America’s original sin. And I wonder how the brothers and sisters will respond to God, who asks us what has happened. Do we shrug it off and say, like Cain, “How am I responsible for his well-being?”
From my African-American friends and colleagues, the lament has been that the white brothers and sisters have mostly responded in suspicious silence. May God forgive us all.
Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor, student and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.
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