Edwin Lyngar considers his own white privilege in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict.
I could shoot a black kid in the street and get away with it.
I’m not proud of this, and I might have never put it into words, except for the sad, horrid feeling I got watching the George Zimmerman trial. George shot a black kid and walked. I know I could too, and with much less trouble than George Zimmerman had. I’m 40 years old, white and educated. I’m a chubby, pale taxpayer. I have no tattoos and have never been arrested and I walk around with the assumption that the police are actually here to serve me.
I could drive through a part of town known for housing people of color. I could get out of my car, walk down the street and find the first kid that looked “street.” I could insult or provoke him, perhaps by calling him a horrid racial name. The moment he responded with any kind of violence or intimidation, I could pull out my Beretta 9mm and shoot him dead. No jury would convict me.
My wife is a lawyer and she told me that Zimmerman isn’t a “perfect” example of getting away with murder, because the facts are complex. I think this case adds yet another example of a broken justice system as it applies to communities of color, as if they needed any more.
I have only a second-hand notion of how people of color feel. I was hassled by police in the very (very) small town of my youth. In small-town America, all the adolescents get hassled. Cops knew all us high school kids, almost by name. They’d ask us if we had beer in our cars and would chase us home after parties. It was about as frightening as an episode of the Dukes of Hazzard. Since I left small town America, my experience with law enforcement is the equivalent of another country compared to the experience of African Americans.
A couple years ago, I got pulled over going to the airport. It was super early and I was both tired and in a hurry, so I was weaving like a drunkard. A cop tried to pull me over about a mile from the airport off-ramp. I just kept going until I was almost to the terminal, right near where I was going. When I finally pulled over the cop asked why I waited so long to stop. I told him wanted off the freeway because it was dangerous for him. I didn’t get a ticket. If I were standing over a body holding a bloody knife, I would expect the police to listen to my side of the story while calling me “sir.”
People like me live in an insular world. I only know this because I was in the military and I went to a number of colleges and graduate schools. The military and college are the two places in our society where people really mix.
During one graduate school experience, I was walking with an African-American friend down a sidewalk in Los Angeles. We came upon a cop who had a suspect in handcuffs sitting on the sidewalk. The “suspect” looked roughed up, and the cop stopped me.
“This guy just fell flat on his face. Did you see it? I’d like to get a witness statement.”
I apologetically told the cop I hadn’t seen what happened, but my friend never even slowed down.
When I caught up with him, I asked why.
“I never talk to the po-po,” he said, blowing my mind. He has the same background I do. He’s educated, smart and middle class, yet we have totally different world views about the “po-po.” He shared with me his lifelong experience of harassment and lack of trust for law enforcement, an inescapable reality for him that I will never feel.
I benefit so much from inequity in ways big and small, seen and unseen. Next to “white privilege” in the dictionary there’s a picture of me sipping a mojito with a little umbrella in it. I feel some shame over these unasked-for advantages, and try to console myself by saying that at least I admit it.
I know many blue collar, so called “working class” white people from my time in rural America. I haven’t lived there in twenty years, but many white working-class people don’t believe “white privilege” exists. Why should they? They never see it. I know people who think Zimmerman shouldn’t have been arrested at all. In fact, my dad called me a “typical liberal” when I said, “you can’t just shoot someone down in the street and get away with it.”
Somehow the murder of this child, Trayvon Martin, has become an issue straight down party lines, with Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other. The self-dividing of our population is a big part of the problem, in my opinion, but I have to admit my father was right about one thing. I do think like a typical liberal in terms of fairness, and there is nothing fair about what happened to Trayvon. The worst part for me of watching the verdict come back was the painful epiphany that if I really wanted to, I could shoot a black kid and get away with it.
I could do that easy.