I’ve known Jerry for more than 40 years. We met through a mutual friend in high school, albeit an unlikely match: Jerry was a star athlete in three sports and I was a nerd who wrote for the school paper and belonged to the Ecology Club. The most obvious difference between us, however, is that Jerry is an African-American.
When we were seniors, I had a weekly news show on the local radio station and was asked to be the emcee at the prom. Jerry was nominated to be prom king. Neither one of us had dates. My reason for being dateless was the aforementioned nerdiness. Jerry’s was because in 1972, black guys rarely dated white girls. We went together, and had fun pestering the less enlightened members of our class by asking them how they felt about interracial dating.
Jerry had some interesting observations that he posted on Facebook last month after the exoneration of George Zimmerman. Among other things, he suggested that most of us do not know what it is like to be black in America. One response was from a pretty hostile white guy upset at that generalization. I’m with Jerry on this one. I don’t have a clue.
I lived on the south side of Chicago in seminary and got a soupcon of being in the racial minority. One nasty winter night I was both low on gasoline and late for teaching a class at a suburban congregation. It was before self-serve gas stations and it took me quite a while to realize that I wasn’t going to be served because I was white.
I arrived late to class with a full load of righteous indignation. My middle school students were riveted by my rant about injustice and then I noticed that the only African-American kid in the class was looking down with a grin on his face. I stopped suddenly and he looked up. “I just learned something, didn’t I?” I asked. His grin grew larger as he silently nodded. I’ve learned, but I still don’t have a clue.
Jerry lives in what I thought was a pretty progressive university town. He has been called the old familiar epithet twice this year: once by a well-dressed young man and once by a guy with a Ph.D. Here’s the thing: I am guilty of racism. It is an ugly confession, but I have drawn conclusions about people because of skin color or ethnicity. While I’m confessing, I should add sexism, ageism and classism to the list and I’m still not sure how I feel about tall, thin people. We all do it because the most primitive part of our brain is wired to perceive difference as threat. Only by staying aware of that frightful reality and the tendency to revert to primitive default characteristics do I have a chance at becoming the person I want to be.
Default characteristics may have played a role in the death of Trayvon Martin. I also imagine that had George Zimmerman not been able to hide his fear and his rage and his desperate desire to be powerful behind the barrel of a gun, there might not have been any confrontation. He might have put the “watch” back in Neighborhood Watch and waited for trained law enforcement professionals to assess the situation. Preconceived notions are frequently wrong. Preconceived notions with deadly force turn tragic.
• Steve Hammer is the pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.