Race, Trayvon Martin and Our National Wake Up Call

The verdict is in. Now what?


As the trial of George Zimmerman wound down in a Florida courtroom this past week, I had traveled to visit loved ones in a posh neighborhood in Atlanta.

Having traveled a good distance and wanting to stretch my legs, I took a walk through the area and marveled at the luxurious homes. Jeff Foxworthy lived in one. Usher lived in another. Players for the Atlanta Braves lived in several others. I didn’t actually see any of these people—I didn’t see any people who weren’t in luxury cars and SUVs—but I knew they were in there someplace.

As I huffed and puffed up winding hills, I found myself thinking about Usher’s young sons. One is 5 years old. One is 4. In a few years they’ll be driving and walking on the same streets on which I was doing my cardio. I’m certain that whatever vehicles they’ll be driving will certainly earn them a finger-wave or an up-nod acknowledgement from other passing drivers.

But what if they’re on foot?

If they’re on foot, they might be in trouble. If they’re on foot, they better be dressed to the nines. If they’re watched, which they will be, or followed, which I hope they won’t be, good manners might possibly become a matter of life and death. As I pounded the pavement of the privileged, I felt afraid for these precious ones, who will soon inhabit man-bodies, to be seen on the streets of their own neighborhood.

Let me be clear up front: the point of this piece is not to debate the jury’s verdict on George Zimmerman. A different ruling would not have changed the reality we face. The death of an unarmed teenager is now behind us. The verdict on a fearful armed citizen is behind us. Now is the time for many of us to wake up. It’s time to start listening.

Before the Trayvon Martin shooting, I didn’t know enough to feel that horrible fear. Since then, I’ve struck up useless conversations with my adopted son in the Apple store in order to let scowling salespeople know he’s with me. He’s legit. He’s covered in the umbrella of my white privilege. But because he’s South Asian, he will be excused from a good deal of the scrutiny African American boys face.

I didn’t come to know this on my own. In fact, over the last year or so, I’ve been schooled by a black mother. The heartbreaking death of Trayvon Martin has provided several windows of opportunity for a friend here in Durham, N.C. to gently educate me about the realities of raising a black son in this country. It was a direct result of her honest sharing that I knew to be a little bit scared for Usher’s boys.

Val* has graciously given me a few glimpses into the everyday life of her family.

I learned that if she asks her son to deliver a package to the private Christian school that’s housed in a wing of the large mostly white church where he was raised, he will get anxious looks from every single classroom teacher he has to pass on his way to the school’s office.

I discovered that—before and since Trayvon—Val begged her teenage son not to wear his hoodie, even on cold mornings, when driving around in their family minivan. Having a warm head on cold mornings is simply a risk she doesn’t want him to take.

I even heard that Val asks her husband not to jog at night in their affluent neighborhood. When he does, she worries until he returns.

As a wife and as a mother, what Val can’t afford to not think about is this: anyone in her neighborhood who might be out walking their dog after dark does not want to turn around and see a black man in sweats running toward them. So, her husband runs in broad daylight. Her husband—a grown man created in God’s image, who owns a home, is gainfully employed and raising three children—does not exercise outside after dark. (I could have stopped after “God’s image.”)

As might have been predicted—in light of Rodney King, O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson—much of America’s response to the George Zimmerman “not guilty” verdict has been split along racial lines. Largely, people of color have recognized the incident as one of many signs of perpetual systematic injustice. Largely, white folks have seen this as an isolated incident—not a sign of a systematic injustice. Zimmerman—they say, and the jury agrees—was technically within his rights.

While there is a place for a debate about what that ruling may or may not mean, our first step must be to open up to a reality outside our personal experience. If we refuse to listen to the stories of our brothers and sisters in this moment, refuse to acknowledge the ongoing reality of a country in which young men cannot wear hoods on a chilly morning, we—people with and without privilege—will continue to be baffled by the next judicial verdict that will again tear open our country’s tender racial wound.

If you have ears to hear, I beg you to listen.

Margot Starbuck


Margot Starbuck, a collaborator and speaker, is the author of Small Things With Great Love. Learn more at www.MargotStarbuck.com

5 thoughts on “Race, Trayvon Martin and Our National Wake Up Call

  1. Racism is a sin. We, as a nation bear the “generational sin” that comes out a history of slavery and the era of Jim Crow: the lynchings, the cross burnings, the assassination of Dr. King, the murder of Medgar Evers, the unjust beating of Rodney King, the unjust trial and incarceration of the 5 young black and brown teens known as the Central Park 5, the disproportionate number of black and brown males incarcerated…etc

    Maybe George Zimmerman isn’t racist; but for the black/African American community, the murder of Trayvon Martin is yet another member of their community who was taken away in a tragic, deeply painful way. And they are left again with no vindication or justice.

    The several comments I read breaks my heart. Margot is acting in a Christ like way by putting herself in a situation in which she wants to understand what life is like for 42 million black/African Americans (who make 13% of our nation’s population). The backlash and vitriolic commentaries about her sincere and heartfelt effort is deplorable.

    The nature and the way that Trayvon Martin’s death may seem isolated and narrow in the eyes of the law & jurors; but it does not land that way for this community. They are in pain and they are hurting so deeply.

    I am a Korean American, married to a Latino. Yes, we all have experienced racism and some forms of injustice and bias. But my small, minor experiences of being called a “gook”, “chink” and the “ching-chong” comments I receive pales in comparison to what African Americans, Native American Indians, and Latinos have faced and continue to face.

    Which leads me to comment about the issue of “white privilege”. When Margot referenced that phrase, she wasn’t using that in the context of “protestant work ethic, ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ ” thereby build a good life for yourself. She was using it in the context of policy. “White privilege” is a remnant of the prevailing views of what slavery was all about and what the era of Jim Crow meant for whites and for blacks. In slavery, its clear that whites were the masters. During the era of Jim Crow, the attitude was that whites could sit in front of the bus, blacks had to sit in the back. During that time, if you’re white, (not matter what your economic status affluent, middle class, or poor,) you had the right, the “privilege” to sit in the front.

    During Jim Crow, (the era of separate but equal), blacks had not voting rights, blacks had to live in fear of the KKK, blacks were lynched, blacks were harassed by the police for the sake of power and amusement, blacks (our brothers and sisters) lived in terror at that time and still do today.

    Today, “white privilege” gets played out like this: if your white, or if your not black or brown, you don’t get followed around the store; you are not subject to policies such as New York’s policy, “Stop and Frisk”, and you certainly don’t have conversations about how not to be target at the store, by the police, etc…I’m not white, but I get to have the “white privilege”, because I’m not black or brown. I don’t have those conversations and I don’t get followed around. I live a “privileged” life where I know that I am not subject to harassment that is based on the lack of dark color of my skin.

    Even though Dr. King and countless others had to die to for Civil Right and laws have changed, the heart of man has not. Slavery and the era of Jim Crow denied blacks/African Americans to live free and to be viewed as equals and to give them space to share their stories and their experience. Their existence and experience was minimized and negated. Based on the comments and complete lack of understanding of their history, the minimizing, dismissing, and negating of their experience continues.

    Sure, Trayvon could have not worn a hoodie, sure Travyon could have handled it differently, sure Trayvon could have done other things, but WHY is the onus solely him? He was an innocent kid. Why couldn’t George Zimmerman gone up to Trayvon and introduced himself in a civil way…explain to Trayvon that he was the neighborhood watchman and that he is on the lookout for thieves. Why couldn’t George have asked Trayvon, “Young man, do you live here”? ” Are you lost? ” “Can I escort you home”? What was in George’s heart when he saw Trayvon? Did he stop to think, “Hey, maybe I should think about how I approach this teen, so I don’t scare him”? By making it Travyon’s fault: we are asking the black/African American community to “suck it up” and move on. You are asking them to forget their past. Where is the compassion for them?

    While there are laws in place to give everyone the right to vote and to create an equal playing field for everyone, there still exists today a form of institutionalized racism. It is played out in the educational, judicial, and even health systems.

    Until we walk in the shoes of those who have experienced a history of oppression and injustice and until the “heart of man” can fully empathize the pain that this community endures, until we sincerely reconcile the sins of slavery and Jim Crow, racism and its evil will continue to fester and be a thorn in our side.

    God is asking us to engage. He wants us to engage for His kingdom. We have to struggle through this and we have to endure, we have to exercise grace, compassion, mercy. We have to change our attitudes and behaviors. This legacy, whether we like or not, is ours to bear, though we don’t want it, and wish it would just go away, it is OURS. Deal with it.

    And to Folasade, I hear your pain, I validate your hurt and I stand with your community. And to Margot, kudos to you for being courageous and willing to engage in a community that is not familiar to you, may you be encouraged to continue to “speak truth to power”. Blessings.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *