after after all

When the foreperson announced the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, I cried.  I didn’t know that I would cry, but I cried.  Maybe it was because I thought of his mother.  Or maybe because I knew what would happen:  the debates, the protests, the questions that would never be answered, the Florida-is-so-stupid comments (again). What I didn’t know was what would happen to me.

I took my kids to the park the following Monday.  A summer camp arrived in fluorescent green t-shirts.  The counselors were young black men, probably in their late teens or early twenties.  I looked at each counselor as he managed his assigned group of campers, counting heads every few minutes or so, and I was jarred by the thought: could it have been you? 

I live in Florida, less than one hundred miles from a place called Sanford.  My neighborhood is racially diverse.  On two separate occasions during my run that Monday night, I jogged past a group of black teenagers.  I waved, they waved.  And again, I thought, could it happen to you?

And though none of them seemed nervous, I was nervous for them.  Because it felt like something had changed.

I’m married to a criminal defense attorney.  I understand reasonable doubt.  As a high school teacher for the past eleven years, I understand my own bias toward teenagers. But let’s be honest.  We wouldn’t be talking about whether racial profiling was a factor in this case if racial profiling wasn’t real.

My first teaching job was at a school in Boston, mostly for kids who had been removed from Boston Public Schools for one reason or another.  The school was at capacity with thirty-four students; teachers were allowed no more than ten kids per class.  My students were primarily black or Hispanic.

I remember watching as a white woman almost plowed down one of my black students in a city crosswalk, after yelling names at him out her window.  (I am still grateful for the man in the truck behind her who called the police.)  I remember taking the kids down to a city park to play basketball during the time we had carved out for P.E.  A security guard questioned them aggressively, a finger in each of their faces. He yelled about trespassing, he yelled about truancy. I stepped out from behind one of the bigger boys, and the problem ended instantly.  I didn’t say a word. But I was a white woman.  So everything was cleared up.  Just like that.  (Yes, both incidents happened in Boston.)

I understand that neither of those examples is very dramatic; no one was killed or even harmed. But what struck me was the reaction of my students.  Or, perhaps I should say the lack of reaction.  They weren’t angry.  They weren’t surprised.  They shrugged it off. Because, for them, this kind of thing happened every day.

The day after the verdict was a Sunday.  We went to church like we normally do. Though I hate to admit it, I don’t always listen to the readings.  Sometimes I’m shifting under the weight of a sleeping four-year-old, thinking about how much my back hurts. Sometimes I’m glancing nervously toward the back of the church, where the toddler screams I hear are probably coming from my own.  On this day, though, I listened. And the Gospel reading was about the Good Samaritan.  And I thought, If only it could have been.

During our day at the park, my girls were swinging on the playground merry-go-round. My littler one struggled to push her sister.  A black boy, about eleven years old, came over and offered to push them both.  “No, thanks,” my older one said.  Both girls jumped off and ran toward the swings.

A little later, while we ate our pretzels at a picnic table, I asked my daughter, “Why did you jump down when that boy offered to push you?  Were you afraid of him?”

“I was afraid he’d push me too fast,” she said, and then paused.  “I wasn’t afraid of him, Mommy.”  She looked at me like I was being ridiculous.

Because being afraid of him would have been ridiculous.