Trayvon Martin was not even remotely a topic of consideration when I wrote my last post about making room for others. Yet, in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal last night, the topic of making room for others could not be more timely. In listening to both the defense and prosecuting attorneys doing a post mortem of the trial, the final statement offered by one of the prosecuting attorneys is that George Zimmerman should not have been following Trayvon Martin in the first place. I was struck by his statement.
Twenty years ago as a social work student at New York University, it was required to take s a semester long course called Ethno-cultural Issues. The course curriculum intentionally surfaced racial and cultural biases most of this otherwise largely liberal-thinking student body would have presumed themselves to be absent of. Don’t think for a moment most white liberal-thinking folks among us even today wouldn’t also discover hidden stereotypes and profiling inclinations.
This didn’t make my fellow students and me “bad” liberals, hypocrites, or racists. What it points to instead is how inculcated we are as a result of education, the environment we grew up in, and culture. Statistics do not bear out the truth of our worse fears when it comes to comparing incidents of black versus white crime. There are books and much footnoted research that dispute many of these assumptions – even 20 years ago.
My class in Ethno-cultural Issues did not promise that our new awareness would eradicate these deep-seated prejudices and assumptions. Instead, it merely served to enlighten us so that we can “choose” how we want to behave and react in any number of situations. Even 20 years later in 2013, it would be a mistake to discard any kind of process that serves to raise our awareness.
What to do? It should be mandatory that every law enforcement officer regularly attends this kind of curriculum. When faced with the situation George Zimmerman claims he found himself in, each man and woman can then take an informed step back, tune into what they are feeling and thinking. It is their responsibility to challenge biases that they too are subject to.
In the face of preconceived biases, we are all obligated to make informed choices – and proceed accordingly.