One of the more riveting images to appear last year after George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin was side-by-side photos of the two young men, altered to make Zimmerman appear black and Martin appear white and asking how those changes would have affected public perceptions of the shooting. Some of the more memorable comments after the shooting involved race reversals as well. In the months following Trayvon’s death, several commentators wondered why a black guy in a hoodie signaled danger, while a white guy in a hoodie signaled Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.
Now that Zimmerman has been acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter, those images and comments are resurfacing as a stark reminder of the impact race has on our perceptions, actions, and laws. Despite claims to be a society that rewards merit and hard work regardless of skin color—as well as one that metes out justice in a fair and impartial way and values all of its citizens—the difficult truth is that race still matters very much in America. People with dark skin—especially young black men—are too often viewed for no good reason with distrust, suspicion, and disdain. For Trayvon Martin, walking home after dark got him killed.
A friend warned me that writing such words would close white ears. “White people don’t like to feel guilty about race,” he said. “Nobody wants to be called a bigot.” I suspect he’s right. But nobody wants to get stopped, frisked, or shot while going about his or her business either.
We have got to get over our racial sensitivities and denials, as well as our resistance to addressing the biases and assumptions that fuel and sustain racial injustice in America today. An essay in Ebony last year, “Dear White Folks: Black People are Sensitive to Race,” spelled out about a dozen ways in which black people are routinely inconvenienced, harassed, threatened, insulted, intimidated, ignored, or harmed simply because they are black. Such matters of safety and fear are known in a visceral way by most black Americans, no matter how much money they make. They are a part of daily life and shape the way that parents raise their children, as they seek to protect them from the serious harm that could come to them simply because of their skin color.
In terms of the Trayvon Martin case, one can point to the weakness of the prosecution, the broad nature of the “Stand Your Ground” law, or any number of additional factors that contributed to Zimmerman’s acquittal. But race was certainly a part of it. If Zimmerman had been black and Martin had been white, the entire narrative of the case—as well as the verdict—would have been different.
On Sunday, the day after the verdict, many churches were filled with sermons, tears, prayers, and calls to action. Rev. Mike McBride, pastor of The Way Christian Center in West Berkeley, California, and director of the Lifelines to Healing Campaign of the PICO National Network, preached about the mutilation, hurt, and pain of black bodies but also of the good news and healing power that can make us whole. “The role of faith is to open the possibility of redemption in the lives of those that are broken,” McBride said in an interview with The Huffington Post, “and I want to challenge our congregations to step into that role.” In addition to preaching, McBride is organizing and training his congregation in direct action to help prevent gun and urban violence.
America is a nation where more than 9 out of 10 people believe in God. And God does not play favorites. We are all equally precious in God’s sight, whether we have won a Nobel Prize or receive unemployment benefits. God weeps as much for a child killed by gunfire in a park in Chicago as for President John F. Kennedy gunned down in a motorcade in Dallas.
What we need most today is “moral imagination”—an intuitive empathy that transcends personal experience. It comes first—before changed policies, politics, or laws. In fact, it makes those changes possible. The writer Marilynne Robinson calls this capacity “imaginative love,” saying that it spurs us to love “people we do not know or whom we know very slightly.” When we get outside of our own skin and transcend our narrow boundaries, we discover lives different from our own, as well as deep connections with so-called strangers.
Such efforts are not merely the feel-good actions of faith communities. In an increasingly diverse society, they are the essential work of all of us. We all need to overcome our hardened assumptions about those who appear different. We need to widen our circle of human concern and community. Stretching our moral imagination means seeking to grasp what it is like to be a black man in America today—the vulnerability and fear that may come from simply being alive. Opening our minds to that knowledge and our hearts to those insights is the necessary and right thing to do.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.