Today, do not speak to me of peace. Do not speak to me of reconciliation or “turn the other cheek.” Today we must confess. We must confess to what our nation was and is continuing to be. We must open our eyes to the way the cancer of race in America not only persists but has mutated, calibrated itself to the supposed inoculations of “multiculturalism” and “post-racialism.”
This morning we need to face a terrifying fact. George Zimmerman is a product of the “multicultural.” A mixed-race man, the son of a Latina mother and a white father, a man who identifies himself as Hispanic, killed a black boy who he identified as dangerous and followed as a suspect. The “not guilty” verdict in this case means quite simply that the [white] jury in this case deemed his actions “reasonable.” Race permeated this case, but in new ways that we cannot lose sight of.
To lose sight of Zimmerman’s racial self-identification is to lose sight of how race has worked in this country, how whiteness was never about biology. Whiteness has always been about a presumption of innocence, a power to judge, the freedom to exist and to be who you declare yourself to be.
Whiteness is a story, a current that generations of people have been excluded from and worked to have access to: Irish, Italians, Polish, Jewish. These were people who found themselves to be strangers on these shores, whose citizenship was in perpetual question. To varying degrees they were called criminals, lazy and seen as threats to “real” Americans. But through a mysterious process these peoples slowly became a part of the fabric of the American dream. How did this come to be? They became acceptable citizens by emphasizing their difference from the black bodies of America.
More recently we have seen waves of immigrants from China, Japan, Mexico, Korea. Their arrivals have been met with the same vehement refusal as the Irish and in so many ways they continue to struggle to be seen as citizens. But even recent immigrants are not immune from the pattern of differentiation that served earlier immigrants so well. But these various in-between bodies, even while they experience their own exclusions, are not immune from the legacy of American racial logic that deems white bodies safe and ideal while seeing black bodies as criminal and dangerous.
Zimmerman’s case reminds us that too often citizenship and freedom to name yourself, to protect yourself (your home, your job, your family) is built upon an old a tragic foundation, that “we” are not the dangerous ones, that “we” are not the lazy ones, that “we” are not “them.”
Who is the “them”? It is the dark body, brought here in shackles so long ago, whose bodies were measured by their capacity to work, to bear children. But these bodies were also feared. They were feared for their difference, they were feared for the strength, they were feared for their joy, they were feared for their faith, they were feared for their curves all of which seemed so foreign to the white bodies that were their masters.
Is the fear that fueled anti-miscegenation laws, and lynching, and Black Codes, and Jim Crow, the War on Drugs and “Stop and Frisk” policies, and racial profiling so different than the fear that drove Zimmerman to appoint himself a neighborhood watchman for his community and routinely report suspicious black men?
We cannot lose sight of the fact that Zimmerman, this mixed-race man, does not make this case less racial, but reveals how thoroughly the fear of black bodies is knit into American life. Zimmerman is not the exception; he is the image of how American whiteness continues to endure. It draws people (even non-whites) into a desire to determine their own lives, to believe in their inherent right to protect what is theirs, in their own capacity to determine what the “good life” looks like.
Today we cannot speak of peace or reconciliation. We must speak of the fear that is driving our country into wars against others and into war against ourselves. We must confess the deep terror that abides within us that allows us to justify the deaths of innocent lives because we can better identify with the fear of the killer than the innocence of the victim. We must risk these confessions lest we become lost in a quagmire of an oversimplified dichotomy of white/black. Zimmerman was a self-identifying Hispanic, deemed white by police, deemed innocent by a jury white women, all while a black boy, Trayvon Martin was as much (if not more) on trial than Zimmerman.
None of this is simple and if we have the eyes to see, we must begin to recognize how an old disease is becoming something more invisible and more dangerous. This is not about a white man and a black boy. This case is about the impossibility of seeing ourselves as untouched in this moment. All of us, recent immigrants, mixed-race, Asian American, Hispanic, black, white… we should all be terrified at how thoroughly race envelopes our world. We should all be terrified at how easy it is to see a black boy murdered and how easy it is to justify doing nothing.
So in the midst of this, my hope is not necessarily for more conversation, for more awareness or, right now, for talk of reconciliation. My hope is for confession, confession of the fear that is driving us to see the deaths of some as more reasonable than the deaths of others, the prosperity of some as more legitimate than the poverty of others.
From these confessions perhaps we can begin to see our crucified Lord more clearly, perhaps we can begin to see ourselves as we are. But if we fail to do so… God help us.