The Sad Case Of Trayvon Martin

No matter how one chooses to parse the still sketchy details, the recent death by gunfire of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida is a great tragedy. A young life was violently taken because of an all-too-easily arrived at suspicion based on stereotype. See a black teen wearing a “hoodie” in a white, gated community and, as the shooter George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer, himself said to police, one must assume that he’s “up to no good.”

There are so many things about this story that are deeply troubling that it’s hard to sort them out.

My son lives in Orlando, not all that far from Sanford in central Florida. He tells me that it’s relatively easy in Florida to obtain a license to carry a concealed weapon. When we visited with him in January and went to a local fairground, there were large numbers of vendors selling all types of firearms and knives. In and of itself, the ease with which one can obtain and legally own a weapon in large swaths of the South scares me. But why that would lead one to think that carrying a concealed weapon, as a volunteer, on a neighborhood watch patrol, is an OK thing to do completely escapes me. It is a line of thinking that is destined to lead to tragedy.

And on a related thread, what constitutes legitimate self-defense when one perceives a threat? We here in New York City continue to struggle mightily to arrive at a credible and legally tenable answer to that question for our law enforcement officers. It is as current an issue as today’s news, when juries and specially constituted commissions try to evaluate the proper use of force by New York City police men and women when apprehending a suspect. At what point is the use of force justified, and to what degree? Are law enforcement officers, who are licensed to carry weapons that are not concealed, different from private citizens in the matter of self-defense? When does the level of threat rise to the point where the use of potentially fatal force is justified?

These are real and legitimate talking questions, but to my mind, they are not the real issue in the Trayvon Martin case. The real issue, though we may be loath to admit it, is race.

Of all the reactions to Trayvon Martin’s death, the one that was the most poignant and, I think, heartfelt, was President Obama’s. One could see how careful he was being with his comments so as not to inflame an already outraged African-American community. In a few brief words, he said what needed to be said.

“If I had a son,” he said, “he would look like Trayvon.”

Those words carried enormous power, and not merely because the President himself is a person of color.

We Jews have a deeply internalized sense of victimhood that our own history has bequeathed us. We have repeatedly known the pain of senseless hatred, and have suffered the indignities that go with being among the most stereotyped people in the history of the human race.

But what the American experience has conclusively shown us- and all those disturbing statistics about intermarriage testify to this- is that in a genuinely open society like 21st century America, we can and will blend in. I may dislike people making gratuitous assumptions about who I am and what my values are by virtue of the fact that I choose to wear a kippah in public, but when all is said and done, if I so choose, I can take it off. And when I do, I am essentially indistinguishable from the majority of the Caucasians who inhabit this city. I can hide that which others would use to demean me. I can, for all intents and purposes, make myself invisible.

And this not so little fact is what differentiates the Jewish experience in this great country from the African-American experience. One can hide a kippah, or any other religious garment, or choose not to wear them in public. One can drop all those ritual laws that serve to differentiate us from our neighbors, and in so doing, eliminate most of the psychic distance between us. But here’s the ultimate truth that we haven’t yet adequately come to terms with: no matter how hard you might try, you can’t hide your skin color. And as long as that is true, the experience of African-Americans in 21st-century America will always be different and more difficult than the Jewish experience.

President Obama’s election to the highest office in this country was a watershed in the American experience, to be sure. But only a fool would think that we live in a post-racial time, when the color of one’s skin is a complete irrelevance. We have come far on the road of progress towards a more just America, but we are not there yet- not by a long shot. Even without all the details about exactly what happened on that sad night in Sanford, Florida, I simply cannot believe that a white teenager in a hoodie would have been stopped, or even suspected, by George Zimmerman. The police would not have been called, and none of this tragedy would have ensued. He was carrying soda and Skittles… why did this tragedy have to happen?

But what about El Al, people have said to me. They profile, don’t they?

Yes, they do. Companies like El Al profile, because the specific responsibility of their highly trained security agents is to insure the safety of their flights, and they know that there are those who seek to sabotage their efforts. They have a well-developed sense of who the enemy is, and how that enemy operates. Similarly, trained law enforcement personnel develop a sixth sense about where trouble may be coming from, but their intuition will, one hopes, be grounded in their experience and training, and not in their personal feelings or fears. Ordinary citizens bearing arms, however, cannot be allowed to be in the position of making life or death decisions based on their subjective hunches (i.e., hoodie = criminal).

America is a great country, and I am proud to live here and grateful that I do. But we have a long way to go before we can truly be “the land of the free, and the home of the brave.” We all have to feel that our sons look like Trayvon Martin — all of our sons. Unless we can summon that feeling and act on it, we will be mired in a never-ending series of senseless tragedies- and that is a price that none of us should be willing to pay.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.