We have two policies that are in conflict in the case of the article below by Ralph Seliger. On the one hand, our desire for our blog is to encourage open debate and present a wide variety of positions, many of which we disagree with. I think we’ve done an admirable job of that – I can’t think of a week that has gone by without us publishing some article that I personally didn’t agree with. On the other hand, we have a policy against publishing hate speech, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Islam, etc.
So when several members of our staff found that Seliger’s article reflected racism and conflicted with Tikkun Daily’s goals of furthering dialogue about healing the world, we decided to momentarily postpone it until we could publish it with a response. In the meantime, Seliger reflected and decided to revise his blog somewhat. The editorial staff still felt that it needed a response, and asked Anna Stitt to go through Seliger’s article and explain some of our primary objections to both the original and the revised versions of the blog. We urge you to read the blog and then our corresponding response, below.
Trayvon Martin: A Tragedy But Not a Crime, by Ralph Seliger
Upon reflection, I can see that Tikkun Daily temporarily withdrew this piece from the homepage because it seemed to miss the painful impact this case has had on the African-American community, with the verdict compounding the sense of injustice and outrage felt by people already suffering the yoke of racial profiling and a criminal justice system all too often biased against them. It also may have appeared to place the victim, Trayvon Martin, on a similar moral plane as the killer, George Zimmerman, because it depicted both as acting in the wrong. I still believe that both made fatal missteps, but it’s clearly Zimmerman who initiated the confrontation, and in the end he walks away free while the young Martin is dead.
Where I differ from many here at Tikkun is in my belief that legally, Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense, holds up. Trayvon Martin was a victim of racial profiling, but the prosecution made a very weak case for murder. It appeared to me, as it did the jury, that Martin was on top of Zimmerman, beating him and causing visible injuries to the back of his head, when Zimmerman shot him.
Maybe it’s possible that the prosecution could have brought a charge of “reckless endangerment” or some such against him, because the police had advised him not to follow Martin on foot. It’s also clear that Zimmerman had racially profiled Martin, but this in itself is not a crime; instead, it’s a mark of the racial polarization of our society. It also reflects the unfortunate fact that male black teenagers are understood to commit a disproportionate number of crimes. In this case, Martin knew he was being followed and attacked Zimmerman out of anger and an immature misjudgment on what to do.
When I reflect back upon my life, I recall one incident when I “racially profiled” someone of Martin’s age. I live in a harmonious multi-ethnic, multi-racial apartment building in one of the most integrated neighborhoods in the country — the Upper West Side of Manhattan. (Something I’m very proud of.) About 15 years ago, I hesitated letting a young black man in with me, because I didn’t remember seeing him in the building. After he explained indignantly that he lived there, I relented (he was, in fact, being truthful). But the background to this is that I had once been mugged after opening the lobby door to two or three African-American teenagers (one casually bouncing a basketball). We rode up the elevator together, and they then mugged me in the hallway near my door; happily, I suffered nothing worse than a bent eyeglass frame when I tried to squirm out of a headlock. Still, this sort of thing stays with you.
The Martin/Zimmerman incident was a tragedy of the first order, but the verdict was not an injustice in the way that many are arguing. Martin was a victim, but partially because he had exercised the poor judgment of an inexperienced youth. This case had no real resemblance to the murders of Emmett Till and Medger Evers, who clearly were victims of the most vile racism imaginable.
What progressives and liberals should be doing now is redoubling their efforts against Florida’s “stand your ground” law, and lax gun laws in general. And the public debate over racial profiling, as occurring in New York right now, should continue; but it’s not easy to intelligently navigate the turbulent waters between an honest effort to deter crime and a policy that all too often stigmatizes an entire population because of their skin color and a clothing style.
Staff Response, by Anna Stitt
As the editor’s note mentions above, when Seliger first put his blog up on Tikkun Daily on Monday morning, the editorial staff found that it went against our goals for the blog of furthering spiritual progressive dialogue about how best to heal the world, based on the values of love, justice, and equity. We postponed its publishing in order to prepare a response to accompany it.
During the time in which the blog was off the site, Ralph Seliger reflected on the blog and decided to revise it somewhat. What is posted above is his revised version, by his request. But because it was published for a few hours, for those who read it on Monday morning and anyone who is wondering about the original post, I will quote and respond to some of the lines in it, in addition to responding to the aspects that we find problematic in the revised version.
I have linked to articles throughout the response for those who would like to read more, and at times I speak from my experience. I aim to address my main concerns and leave the rest for readers to address if they choose. If you would like to engage in further dialogue with others about the points I or Seliger have raised or not yet raised, please comment below.
First, the original blog stated that “Martin was a victim, but largely because of his own poor judgment and lack of self-control.” The revised version, while not stating this so definitively, still indicates that “Martin was a victim, but partially because he had exercised the poor judgment of an inexperienced youth.”
Because Seliger clearly thinks that this was a case of racial profiling, I think he would agree that there is very little likelihood that Martin would have been a victim had he engaged in the exact same behavior but been white.
As a white woman, I would not have been judged suspicious in a gated neighborhood and would never have had to decide whether to run from, try to reason with, or fight – maybe fight for my life – an unidentified neighborhood watchman with a gun in the rain. I have no idea how I would have responded in the fear of the moment. I have never been put in that situation. (And if I were subject to violence, it seems as if the media, and law enforcement correspondingly, would respond much more energetically than if I were not a white woman.) But ideally no one would ever be put in a position where they are at risk of being shot depending on what their fight/flight response happens to be when confronted in this way because their appearance raised “suspicion.”
I think it prudent, then, not to blame Martin as having died “largely because of his own poor judgment and lack of self-control,” and I question Seliger’s statement that Martin “attacked Zimmerman out of anger and an immature misjudgment on what to do.” It is actually not known who initiated the physical fight or what Martin’s emotions were. And what does it mean to be passing judgment on his actions when Trayvon Martin is dead–what does it say about our society and its justice system when a dead black boy can basically be put on trial for his own murder?
Blaming Martin in any way for his own death erases the well-documented and long-standing reality that African Americans in this country, particularly African American young men, are consistently harassed and killed by police and civilians regardless of their responses. Seliger mentions the death of Emmett Till as a different type of case. The form of violence that is most common has shifted since the days of Emmett Till’s killing and mutilation, yes, but black people are still constantly at risk of death, with very little consequence to those who violate their civil and human rights.
“Stand Your Ground” laws do urgently need to be repealed, but I would challenge the assessment of the outcome of the trial as “legal” and therefore not a race-based transgression. A recent study found that in states with “Stand Your Ground” laws, a white person who kills a black person is 354% more likely to be acquitted than a white person who kills a white person. (It is true that Zimmerman has Peruvian heritage, but I won’t get into that because this could get into a dense discussion of whiteness, definitions of race, blackness, and critical race theory; I think we can agree that these are significant statistics regardless in thinking about black and non-black people.) Within our legal system, the racism is systemic and engrained, such that lines of legality are hardly clear.
Second, Seliger mentions his own experience of suspecting one black man to mug him after another had and suggests that “this sort of thing stays with you.”
Often what sticks in our minds is the outlier moment – the one time when our suspicions were validated. I’m sure that Seliger has been in spaces with black men during many other moments in his life when he was not mugged. Unless he leads a specifically isolated lifestyle, I would guess that the majority of his interactions with black men through his life have not included violence. Still, it is easy to remember the negative moments and map them to people of a particular race in our race-based society (see more on confirmation bias). And because we can make these appearance-based judgments before any conversation is had, it could be easy to stay for a long time in the space of assumptions and profiling.
Within the Tikkun community of people committed to healing the world, it is the crucial work of those with dominant identities (in this case, non-black people) to process any traumas so that we will not map them onto every person whom we see (in this case, black men). When we do this work to heal from any hard experiences, it helps us to not live in fear and be better able to build relationships with people. It also prevents us from making others uncomfortable or presenting a threat to them when they are trying to live their lives, preventing situations such as the one in which Seliger resisted letting the black man into the elevator and made him defend his residency (which was probably inconvenient and distressing for him) and the other in which Zimmerman pursued Martin.
Third and connected to this is the original blog’s statement:
It’s also clear that Zimmerman had racially profiled Martin, but this in itself is not a crime; instead, it’s a mark of the racial polarization of our society. It also reflects the unfortunate fact that male black teenagers (with or without hoodies) commit a disproportionate number of crimes.
The revised version states instead that “…It also reflects the unfortunate fact that male black teenagers are understood to commit a disproportionate number of crimes.”
Just to clear up any confusion, I want to highlight that when it comes to crime rates, the areas that are most heavily policed, which are typically communities with many black residents, tend to have the highest arrest rates. When no police are present to find crimes, they typically go unreported – this is the case most often in wealthy, predominantly white neighborhoods (not to mention that white collar crimes such as embezzlement and violence at much broader scales, such as international human rights violations committed by presidents, are rarely policed to the same extent as smaller crimes that take place on the street). I’ve included two excerpts from reports, with the links at the bottom of each excerpt for those who would like to read more on the subject.
Since many crimes go unreported to the police, it is difficult to draw conclusions about race with respect to who offends. The most reliable statistics available are arrest data and these are provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Uniform Crime Report (UCR), but these figures omit those who committed an offense but were not arrested. Reported arrest rates for many offenses suggest that African Americans are disproportionately involved in particular crimes. For example, 39% of arrests for violent crime and 31% of arrests for property crime are of African Americans.
(The rate of arrest of Latinos is not measured in the UCR.) Victimization surveys in which victims are asked to identify the perpetrators of crime are another data source, and race-related findings from these surveys are consistent with arrest data for many offenses.
However, when looking at arrest rates it is important to remember the context in which arrests are made. Arrest rates are essentially an indicator of (1) police activity in clearing reported crimes, and (2) crimes police observe themselves. Thus, arrest figures reflect the frequency with which crimes are reported, police decisions regarding offenses on which they will concentrate their attention and resources, and the relative vulnerability of certain crimes to arrest. Despite these limitations, arrest rates are frequently mentioned synonymously with offending rates.
And from a report by Human Rights Watch:
The higher rates of black drug arrests do not reflect higher rates of black drug offending. Indeed, as detailed in our May 2008 report, “Targeting Blacks: Drug Law Enforcement and Race in the United States,” blacks and whites engage in drug offenses – possession and sales – at roughly comparable rates. But because black drug offenders are the principal targets in the “war on drugs,” the burden of drug arrests and incarceration falls disproportionately on black men and women, their families and neighborhoods. The human as well as social, economic and political toll is as incalculable as it is unjust.
With these reports in mind, when Seliger writes, “it’s not easy to intelligently navigate the turbulent waters between an honest effort to deter crime and a policy that all too often stigmatizes an entire population because of their skin color and a clothing style,” I would ask, even if a house does get robbed once in awhile, can we not replace those items? Is the effort to deter petty crime worth a human life? Is it worth the policing and moments of harassment outside elevators, preventing young people from entering their homes?
I wonder if it would make sense to redirect some of society’s focus on fearing and policing street crime – the brunt of which is too often experienced by black men, as Seliger highlights – and to instead put energy into fixing the system that presently incarcerates young black men at a disproportionately high rate? What if we were to focus on challenging the people who commit crimes (whether legal or illegal) at a much larger scale, often eliminating resources from already poor communities and so increasing the street crime that exists? Where do we each place our attention and fear, how is that shaped by our identities, and how does it impact the context in which we live?
Finally, I appreciate that in his revision of the blog, Seliger acknowledged the pain and feeling of unsafety caused by Zimmerman’s acquittal for many black people, a point that was previously absent from his blog. But I would add that pain is also felt by many people who are not black – because another young person is dead, and black people close to us are in danger of being assaulted without accountable intervention by the state, and other people of color are also at risk. Our society is far from healed, and I’m convinced that this hurts us all and should be everyone’s burden. I’m hopeful that this moment can be an opportunity for us to all look inside ourselves at what we have learned from society about race, community, safety, and who and what to fear, and move forward from here with concrete action steps toward the tikkun – or repair – of the world.
Again, we would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. We welcome a range of perspectives. We do not censor comments; all are posted unless found to violate our comment policy.
Anna M. Stitt
Web Editorial Intern