I’ve been thinking about Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman’s acquittal, and President Obama’s response for a few weeks. I haven’t watched the news much since the end of the trial. I tried to read the text of the President’s remarks and couldn’t get past the phrase “respectability tax.” It was jarring, like a kick to the solar plexus.
In his biography, I Beat the Odds, Michale Oher speaks simply and profoundly about his experiences growing up in the ghettos of Memphis. Near the end, he talks about the importance of knowing how to dress and behave for different situations. I set this against the idea of a respectability tax. I thought about the crowds of people of all colors, wearing hoodies in solidarity with dead Trayvon Martin and every other African American. Something just didn’t feel right.
If there is a respectability tax, explain to me why Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a Harvard professor and highly-regarded scholar, was arrested by the Cambridge police essentially for having trouble unlocking the door to his home. I’m pretty sure he was wearing casual business attire, not a hoodie. It still amazes me that the Cambridge police didn’t recognize Mr. Gates.
I grew up in a sadly notorious town in eastern Ohio. You’ll recognize the name: Steubenville. My dad was a prominent citizen, a lawyer, a U.S. magistrate, president of the bar association, and at one time a rabbi at the Reform temple. Everyone knew Joe Freedman. I think of Mr. Gates like that.
This isn’t about hoodies. There is no respectability tax. This is about membership in a group, the color of your skin, and maltreatment as a consequence. The other day, I thought that if I could change the color of my skin, I would. And then I remembered a couple of stories.
In 1940, the Germans occupied Denmark. Playing politics, they did not round up and deport the Danish Jews to concentration camps until 1943, after the Danish government resigned. The apocryphal story goes that non-Jewish Danes protected their Jewish neighbors by wearing the same yellow stars that Jews were required to wear. Although this story is legend not fact, the Danes did successfully protect the Jews living in Denmark. Only about 470 were sent to live in Theresienstadt, a ghetto (not a death camp) in Czechoslovakia. Only about 120 of the 7,000 or so Jewish Danes died during World War II.
I was born in 1955 into that first generation after the Holocaust. In 1965, I was sitting in some waiting room and overheard a couple of older women speculating about whether someone was Jewish. “She’s got such a big nose, and those thick lips,” one of them said to the other. “She must be.” I wondered if they were talking about me. Maybe that same year, we took a sightseeing drive through a neighborhood near Pittsburgh (my mother grew up in Pittsburgh). I saw a sign that said “No Jews allowed.” That was the sight we had driven to see.
So when I read an African American writer’s words in the New York Times that young African American men are viewed as a problem, it sent a little shiver down my spine, a little frisson of fear. Yeah. And problems have solutions. Thinking about problems and solutions, hoodies and yellow stars, ghettos and singling out people because they look a certain way, I begin to feel sick.
All my life, I have felt just a little insecure. An airplane or helicopter flying over my house can generate anxiety. A knock on the door can do the same. This cultural fear in my DNA has gotten better since I earned a black belt in Taekwondo, but it’s still there. Certain conversations about ancestry and family history still bring tears to my eyes. All of those details are gone, lost in the ashes in Eastern Europe.
Maybe we don’t have pogroms. But the way we have begun turning our backs on or looking away from the poor economic conditions that many people of color live in is close enough for me. A disproportionate number of African Americans live in poverty. A disproportionate number of African American men are in prison. You know this.
No one can convince me that getting out of his car was the right thing for George Zimmerman to do. I think he got out of his car because he had a gun and a stand-your-ground law. But there’s a chance that Trayvon Martin would have been shot anyhow, by the police. It’s happened, even in the liberal Northeast.
Still, I’m horribly idealistic at heart. I think we have a constitution that has answers to the questions that remain. I think that we don’t need stand-your-ground laws; most states have other laws that address self-defense issues. I hope to see a day when stand-your-ground laws are found unconstitutional and found to violate civil rights.
Yeah. And I know we have been here before. German Jews thought they were good German citizens and had some rights.
Trayvon Martin is dead. But that’s just a highly visible example. A Google search will tell you that between 7,000 and 8,000 African American men die from gun violence in a year. Homicide statistics tell an uglier story. Even though only about 13 percent of the U.S. population is African American, more than half the homicide victims in a year are African American.
Do we really need to go through this again?