There have been countless excellent essays written about Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmermann trial, but this New Yorker piece captures something I had been trying to grasp. What it says about race, and the stories that it has brought out about the experiences of young black men and the way that they fear for their lives has been a necessary conversation and one that I think a lot of white people, myself included, have benefited from hearing (President Obama’s recent statement was an excellent example of this, and a few weeks ago the comments by LeVar Burton about the ritual he goes through whenever he is stopped by police in order to ensure that he will not set off any alarms of suspicion was a smaller, yet also very powerful contribution to these conversations). Those are experiences that I would not know about without being told, because that’s what white privilege does, and while I can never say I understand them, by listening to those voices, the emotions and activities that they produce, the lives that build up around them come into sharper focus.
This has not been how I have read and reacted to the rest of the case. Leaving aside Zimmermann’s individual personal fear and entitlement, the fundamental principles of the law that led to his acquittal is something completely foreign to me. The Stand Your Ground law is, to me, so obviously a recipe for violence of exactly this kind that I cannot fathom the series of decisions that went into it. This is where the article is useful:
This violence-encouraging doctrine has persisted, and so, too, has the reasoning of the judicial decisions that established it. There is no invocation of natural law; the argument isn’t that all men have an inherent right to kill when threatened. The appeal is, rather, to a kind of implicit cultural law: it is not in the American character to retreat.
It’s not in the American character. These colours don’t run. Stand Your Ground. I need the historical context offered in that article and others like it to understand not just the racial component of this story, but the violent one. I think it’s harder to find personal stories that reflect the ways in which this concept has structured lives, has led to changes in behaviour or emotional perspectives, because it’s a somewhat subtler, but equally pervasive, frame.