There are two sides to every public drama. One of them is usually wrong, or at least more wrong than the other. But while one side may seem more plausible to us, based on initial appearances and on our existing predispositions and generalizations and predispositions, we can only begin to grasp the rights and wrongs once all the facts have been investigated. Here are two sides to the drama of the day:
- An innocent, law-abiding you black teenager goes to the store. He goes through a guarded neighborhood on his way home. A neighborhood watch captain sees the boy, and sees a suspicious character for no other reason than skin color and tries to stop him. The captain calls the local police department, which advises him not to follow the fleeing boy, but the watch captain ignores the advice, runs after the boy, and guns him down in an act of sheer racist violence. The police show up later, but institutional biases, abetted by a law that allows citizens to shoot people they fear, lead them to accept the racist killer’s claims of self-defense and let him go.
- A conscientious and diligent volunteer watch captain sees a young black man walking through a neighborhood that has recently experienced a number of crimes committed by young black men. Although the police department does advise him not to follow the young man, he does so out of concern for the safety of the neighborhood. He decides to give up on the chase, though, and begins to walk back to his vehicle when the teenager attacks him. Knocked to the ground and believing the young man intends to do him serious harm, the watch captain pulls his weapon and shoots the teenager. When the police arrive, they find blood on the watch captain’s face and the back of his head, supporting his contention that he was attacked and defending himself. Based on this the police do not charge him. Later, the neighborhood watch captain passes several lie detector tests in testifying about the events of the evening.
Based on your own views about race and the law and on your personal experiences, one of these stories will seem self-evidently true to you. But what seems true to us and what is true are two different things. Both of the tales are tragic, and in either case one can certainly sympathize with the family of Trayvon Martin. But I think it is a bit early for the case to escalate into a cause or for us to conclude guilt on the part of George Zimmerman
The Moral Liberal Sociology Editor, Carl L. Bankston III is Professor of Sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. He is the author and co-author of a number of books and numerous articles published in academic journals. An incomplete list of his books includes: Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (with Min Zhou, 1998), Blue Collar Bayou: Louisiana Cajuns in the New Economy of Ethnicity (with Jacques Henry, 2002), and A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana (2002), Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation (hardback, 2005; paperback, 2007), and Public Education – America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (2009) (all with Stephen J. Caldas). View Professor Bankston’s full bio, here. He blogs at Can These Bones Live?
Copyright © 2012 Carl L. Bankston III.