Racism is every American's problem

It's an easy punchline to blame Florida or the South for this horrible verdict. But the problem goes much deeper

Published July 14, 2013 4:02PM (EDT)

A young and unarmed black man was walking home from a convenience store and was murdered by a man with a gun who claimed he was defending himself. The man with the gun is now free because a jury of six women acquitted him of all charges. Life is absurd.

On my Twitter feed, many people have expressed shock and outrage. They seem genuinely surprised. Having followed the trial, I am not so much surprised as I am numb. I don’t quite feel anger, though I am, in my way, outraged. This verdict speaks for itself. This verdict tells us everything we need to know about our laws, whom they are designed to protect, and why. It tells us about the power of the gun lobby, the power of stereotypes, and the value of a black person’s life.

Black men and women, black boys and girls, will continue to live in a world where they are guilty until proven innocent, and where their lives matter less in a justice system that is anything but blind to race. None of us, in fact, are blind to race. When people say, “I don’t see race,” they are actually saying, “I don’t want to see race and thereby face the world as it really is.” It is the most sincere expression of privilege there is.

We need to consider the bigger picture. What happened to Trayvon Martin is not a problem with Florida. We can joke about the Sunshine State and its supposed backwardness. We can pretend Zimmerman’s acquittal wouldn’t have happened elsewhere. That simply isn’t true. Though Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law contributed significantly to Zimmerman’s acquittal, the root of the problem reaches far deeper and stretches all across these United States. We must forget the convenient narrative that racism only thrives in the South. Racism is an American problem. We all need to stop trying to absolve ourselves of responsibility.

Inevitably, when I write about race or gender, people say, “You’re pointing out problems we already know about. You’re wasting time. You’re making trouble. Focus on solutions.” I hear these statements, truly I do, but when people suggest that cultural critics should offer solutions to problems that cannot be easily solved, they are saying, “Don’t make me feel helpless. Don’t remind me of how powerless I am.” I hear that too.

It is a comforting idea that the problems borne of racism or misogyny might be equations for which there are elegant solutions. This is not the world we live in. An essay or an Op-Ed won’t solve anything. I know that and you know that. Nonetheless, my most powerful tool is words, and so I use my voice as best I can. I do other things, beyond words. I vote. I teach. Most people do far more. I want to do far more.

This verdict is a reminder that we all need to do far more, though I am not entirely sure what doing more should look like. How do we create change in a country where George Zimmerman can be acquitted? We can wear hoodies. We can protest. We can sign petitions. We can write our elected leaders. We can work to elect better lawmakers in 2014 and 2016 and beyond. We can donate money to and volunteer for organizations that fight racism and gun violence like the NAACP, Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU, Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and many others. We can also confront the instances of casual racism in our everyday lives, whether they come from ourselves or the people around us. We can stop hysterically shouting “political correctness” or “censorship” when people suggest that everyone, regardless of race or gender or any manner of “difference,” deserves to live with dignity. I’m not sure any of these efforts will accomplish much, but what else can we do? We have to do something.

In the coming days, there will be impassioned and righteous writing about Trayvon Martin, race in America, and the travesty of justice that has taken place in Florida. None of this writing will necessarily solve anything but it will matter, at least a little, because people are making some noise instead of stewing silently, helplessly, hopelessly.

I am numb but I will not allow myself to feel hopeless. No one should allow themselves the luxury and impotence of despair right now. If we despair, we are surrendering to injustice. We may feel powerless. We may be powerless. But we cannot give up hope. We cannot be silent.

By Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay's writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2012, Oxford American, the Rumpus, the Wall Street Journal and many other publications

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

George Zimmerman Race Racism Trayvon Martin Zimmerman Trial