|Jim Morin, The Miami Herald|
A lot of artists use the term turning point when they talk about that moment where they knew they wanted to pursue being a painter, a director, a playwright. For me, one of the turning points of when I knew that a career as a reporter was the right one for me was this article, by crime reporter R. Scott Moxley for "OC Weekly" (where I interned for and wrote a couple of pieces back in 2009).
It was a profile of Gunnar Jay Lindberg, who, with an accomplice in 1996, brutally murdered the 24-year-old Vietnamese-American Thien Minh Ly in Tustin, CA as he was rollerblading on an evening in January. What the story told me was that, 1) unfair things happen, especially when you're a person of color, and 2) journalism can be a way to bring light to that kind of injustice.
What brought this old case to my head again was Travyon Martin and George Zimmerman, and how Zimmerman, despite killing Martin, was acquitted of 2nd degree murder and manslaughter. This isn't 1996, it was 2013 and injustice is still alive.
Of course it's false to equate a pre-meditated hate crime with manslaughter, but the reason Thien Minh Ly came to me now was because of the racial motivation. Zimmerman followed Martin because he was black. Lindberg targeted Ly because he was Asian.
But I'm not going to go into whether I think Zimmerman's acquittal was the right decision or not (it wasn't), or whether he had the right to shoot a teenager (he didn't). Instead, I want to go into discourse, or whether, the state of discourse in this country about race and victim blaming.
On Monday and Tuesday, I read two editorials in the "Washington Post" that said, to paraphrase, that it was logical for Zimmerman to assume, because Trayvon Martin was black and wearing a hoodie, he was a "thug," the term that's been thrown around in the past year.
This editorial on Monday, from Richard Cohen, says that Martin was "understandably suspected" because:
"young black men commit a disproportionate amount of crime, then it ought to be young black males whom the police stop and frisk. Still, common sense and common decency, not to mention the law, insist on other variables such as suspicious behavior..."
Kathleen Parker, Pulitzer-winning columnist, wrote this the next day:
"Just because a few black youths caused trouble doesn’t mean all black youths should be viewed suspiciously. This is so obvious a truth that it shouldn’t need saying and yet, if we are honest, we know that human nature includes the accumulation of evolved biases based on experience and survival. In the courtroom, it’s called profiling. In the real world, it’s called common sense."
No, Ms. Parker, in the real world, to assign traits of character based on someone's skin color is not common sense, it's racist. I may be Asian-American, but I'm not a doctor, or a lawyer. I'm a journalist. And you should know better than to judge, being a woman in an industry primarily populated by men.
I'm not going to get into how off-base Cohen's allegations about the rate of crime among African-Americans (read the response here), but I wanted to put these columns here because it tells us something about the state of racial discourse in 2013.
It tells us that we live in a culture that still primarily blames the victims when bad things happen to them. What these nationally recognized writers, and the commenters who share their views tell us is that there is nothing wrong in assuming that because someone is Black and strolling at night, they might be a criminal. And if they become afraid, and panic and throw a punch, then they deserve to be shot
Never mind that being followed for blocks by a stranger would initiate anyone's flight or fight response, especially for black men who are taught to always be aware of how scary they are to white people. And yet, we never judge white men as a racial group when they commit a crime. A majority of the mass shootings are committed by white males and no one's writing a column about how all young, white men are suspicious. Instead, they deserve empathy and to be seen as individuals.
As a woman, my parents always taught me the following: don't stay out late, don't walk home at night by yourself, beware of strangers. It's a normal fact of life that there are certain things you can't do that men can, because it's more dangerous. The imperative has to be on you to keep yourself safe, you can't trust strangers to do that for you, even if you're just walking home.
It's why, when I lived in Washington Heights, I used to speed walk home at night, and stayed on the busy streets.
Hearing Martin be blamed for his own death because he was wearing a hoodie, because he wasn't walking fast enough, because he fought back, because he was walking down the street at night...it's as if he asked for Zimmerman to shoot him, just like if a woman is wearing a short skirt, she deserves to be raped.
Martin deserved to die because he was a teenager who, like most teens, did stupid things sometimes (like flip off a camera and smoke pot). And Zimmerman, who had a history of violence and misdemeanors, is not to blame for shooting a young man who had never committed a crime. Because Martin deserved to die, for being who he was and for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Or as written by Amy Davidson in the "New Yorker:"
There is an echo, in what people say Martin should and shouldn’t have done, of what people say to women when bad things happen to them in dark places. Why did you walk that way, why were you out in the rain? Why did you walk in the direction of the man instead of running? Why did you think you had the privilege to go out and get candy for a child? You didn’t; you should have known.
And I also want to add the following usual questions to women who are assaulted in the streets: What were you doing alone at that place, at that time? What were you wearing? Why didn't you fight back?
Well, Trayvon Martin fought back when he was being followed by a stranger, one who followed him in a car then on foot as well. No one knows who started the fight, but we do know that fighting back is what led to Martin's death, and giving Zimmerman a broken nose is justification that he deserved to die.
Then again, Thien Minh Ly didn't fight back. And he's also dead.
So what are we, as women and men of color, to do? Why is the imperative on us to keep ourselves safe? Isn't the point of the law to keep innocent people safe? And if something terrible happens to us as we're walking home, isn't the law there to make sure we find justice?
Charles Blow of the "New York Times" wrote:
We used to say not to run in public because that might be seen as suspicious, like they’d stolen something. But according to Zimmerman, Martin drew his suspicion at least in part because he was walking too slowly. So what do I tell my boys now? At what precise pace should a black man walk to avoid suspicion? And can they ever stop walking away, or running away, and simply stand their ground? Can they become righteously indignant without being fatally wounded?
So 2013 is not different when than 1996.
It's still not safe for young people to be walking down the street at night, even if it's streets that they know. And if they are a woman, or a man of color, then whatever happens to them, even when they are hurt, it is their own fault. In some ways, they asked to be shot or raped.
Perhaps parents should start teaching their children that they are on their own from the moment they leave the house, and they are always to be blamed if something horrible happens to them. Because that seems to be the message that our national dialogue is sending.