The facts are not in dispute. On a rainy February evening in the American State of Florida, Trayvon Martin, a black teenage boy, walked from his father’s middle class home to a store to buy candy and a drink. On his way home, he was confronted by an armed man who pulled the trigger on his gun, shot the boy in the chest, and left him dead.
This past weekend, a jury of six white women found the white man who killed him not guilty of murder, and acquitted him of all charges.
What does this mean for Africans?
Despite the fact that we have an African American president, our judicial system depends on a jury system where the accused is judged by a jury “of his peers.” In a multi-cultural society, how is the term “peer” defined?
Peer could mean someone of the same age, gender, religion, profession, political party, nationality, race, or one of many criteria. While humanity is defined by qualities more complex than skin color, race remains one of the primary means by which we define ourselves and define others. Perhaps this happens because race, for many, is an easy visual cue to define someone. Not all blacks feel a kinship with one another, but a significant contributing factor to my own comfort in traveling, and living, in Africa over the last twenty years has been the warmth with which Africans have welcomed me as their black sister. There is something innate, built into our DNA, that makes many humans favorably biased towards those with a similar racial profile. Race is not the sole, nor exclusive, factor in determining to whom we are drawn, and the universe is full of examples of love and like across racial lines. But when we are welcomed by strangers for this reason alone, it inspires a warm and comfortable human emotion. A wise older woman said to me, “They aren’t racist — it’s just that red ants prefer red ants.”
The flip side to this dynamic is that our human, clannish tendencies can create a lack of empathy for those whom we perceive as not belonging to our same clan. The complex and tragic legacy of race relations in the US means that all too often, white Americans and black Americans feel like they are on opposite sides of the tribal divide.
I have often observed with great interest how my African friends arrive in the US unburdened by the legacy of U.S. racial dynamics. Their lack of racial baggage sometimes opens the door to a different type of relationship between Africans and white Americans in U.S. universities, work places, and social institutions. Africans living in the U.S. sometimes express wonderment as to why African Americans see the world through a racial lens. Because of their perspective, Africans often transcend American racial divides that elude many African Americans. Despite countless genuine relationships between black and white Americans, Africans are sometimes told, “you aren’t like American blacks” as a justification for the bonds that have formed across racial lines.
On that February night in Florida, George Zimmerman, saw a boy walking home from the store, he didn’t take the time to determine whether the boy was from South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Florida, Chicago, or Atlanta. What George Zimmerman saw was a “black boy,” and with that information, he phoned the police to report what he considered him a suspicious person who he perceived as a threat. Trayvon Martin, wearing a hoodie, could just as easily have been named Tunde, Thulane or Twia.
Acutely aware of how commonality of skin color creates emotional empathy, President Obama commented about the case, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” Trayvon could also be the son of any African. The Trayvon Martin case, and the acquittal of his murderer, has become an American tragedy, with the court of popular opinion having determined that justice was not served. We are questioning what it means to be judged by a jury of one’s peers. Had the jury been six black men, it is unlikely that George Zimmerman would have been acquitted for murdering an unarmed boy.
But the Trayvon Martin case is not just an American tragedy; it is a tragedy for black people everywhere. The black diaspora constitutes a global community of peers. Had the jury been constituted of black people from any part of the world, it is unlikely that Zimmerman would have been found not guilty of murder. Because Trayvon’s unnecessary death was derivative of his race, the acquittal of Zimmerman is a strong admonition to Africans that when on American soil they, like African Americans, share a vulnerability based on the commonality of our skin color.
To put it simply, in the eyes of a vigilante like George Zimmerman, we, Africans and African Americans alike, are all Trayvon.