The reports say that Trayvon Martin looked suspicious because he was wearing a hoodie with the hood up. Wow. If that's all it takes for a young man to look suspicious then most of the church kids I've known the last 10 or 15 years fit the bill. In North Carolina the kids at Mt. Zion wore hoodies - Billy, Taylor, Corey, Jarrett, Logan, Eddie, Brandon... Here at Shepherd King, in Texas, the kids wear them, too - Lane, Catie, Cameron, Saidee, Rane... In fact, if you're an American between the ages of 7 and 27 you probably own and wear a hoodie, sometimes with the hood up. It's standard dress these days.
I doubt that people would think Billy or Taylor, Cameron or Saidee or any of the others I listed above would look "suspicious" when they're wearing hoodies. That's because each of them is white. A crucial element left out of the official reports is that Trayvon Martin looked "suspicious" because he was wearing a hoodie and he was black. He was, in fact, a young African-American male -- just the image that would come to mind for most of us if we heard that a "suspicious person" was in our neighborhood.
Racism is an important component in this case. I'm not, in particular, talking about George Zimmerman - the man who shot and killed Trayvon; I'm talking about us - you and me and the society we live in. We are all infected with racism, whether we want to be or not. I certainly do NOT intend to think of young black men as likely criminals. I know such labels and stereotypes are untrue, unfair, and harmful to all of us. You're probably like me. You do not intend to be racist; you do not harbor illwill or hatred of African American people in your heart. You try to be open and accepting of all people. That is how I think of myself, and yet still, we are infected with racism.
Nobody likes to be called a "racist" - we bristle and insist that we do not hold a person's skin color against them. Most likely, that is true - we do not intentionally reject people or dislike people because of their color. That is true of me. Even so, we have racism in our minds and our hearts. We may hate that (I do), we may try to eliminate that (I do), but to be truthful, to be fair, it is there. Ridding ourselves of racism is hard work; it requires consistent, sustained effort. We shouldn't expect it to be easy or that we'll accomplish it quickly.
Slavery in the United States was abolished in 1863 when President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Of course, the on-going civil war meant that this law did not take effect in many places until several years later. The first African slaves were brought to the United States (territory at that time) around 1565 (Wikipedia). 300 hundred years of slavery in America has been followed, thus far, by almost 150 years of freedom for African Americans. Now, we know that good things take longer to establish than do harmful things. Making peace is a long process; starting a war happens in an instant. So it should not surprise us that we - our society - still has a ways to go in terms of overcoming racism.
I do not mean that last statement to be an excuse. My hope is that we might, all of us, realize that racism lingers within us like toxic waste saturates the soil after a spillage has been cleaned up. To say certain actions or attitudes are 'racist' is not to say we are all a bunch of awful, irredeemable people who clearly hate anyone who is different from ourselves. Acknowledging racism among us is simply a confession of truth. If racism were not prevalent among us - not just in some individuals, but in our collective lives - Trayvon Martin would not have seemed 'suspicious' because he was wearing a hoodie with the hood pulled up. He looked suspicious because he was a young, African-American male wearing a hoodie with the hood pulled up. And that is racism.
We can tackle this problem. It is not insurmountable. We can move beyond the racism we have grown up with (as a society - I don't mean in your or my individual families). But the first step, as I see it, is to admit the fact that there is still racism in our minds, in our attitudes, in our reactions to others. We cannot talk about racism as if it only applies to someone else. I must strive to erase racism in myself and you, in yourself. We can do this, together. We can confess the wrong within us and ask God to help us change, help us grow, help us be the people we want to be. Please join me in doing that today and into the future.
No more Trayvon Martins. No more senseless killings because we distrust one another, in large part, on the basis of skin color. Let's work harder to be cured of our racism. And may God help us and bring us to that goal.
Pastor Kris Franke Hill, STM