The Cost of Fear and the Death of Reason: Trayvon Martin

Here are some of statistics that all Americans should know:

1. Violent crime and murder rates are almost half what they were in 1991. (ref)

2. White men commit 3/4 of all the crime perpetrated in America. (ref)

If you’re going to bother being frightened, it should be important to know what you actually need to be scared of.  Recently, a study by the Royal Statistical Society of Britain found that public perceptions were staggeringly out of touch with reality. I have absolutely no doubt that a similar study in the US would reveal similar results.

No matter how you feel about the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial, one thing is indisputable: the whole tragedy of that night was born of Zimmerman’s mistaken and unjustified fears. Trayvon Martin was walking home with no evil intent. He did not mean Zimmerman or anyone else any harm. You may use the word ‘racial profiling’ if you wish, but I believe it was fear that motivated Zimmerman and that, in this case, he is a product of a system and a society that has benefited greatly in many ways from inciting unreasonable fear in its members.

I suspect the fears motivating Zimmerman went well beyond just an irrational fear of a young man of colour in a hoodie. From what has been reported about Zimmerman’s past, my guess is he was also frightened of being insignificant, being powerless, not being masculine enough, tough enough, decisive enough. And my guess is, there are a lot of Zimmermans out there, because government, consumer culture and the media have worked very diligently to make them that way.

Fear makes us acquiescent as a nation and voracious consumers. It encourages people to give up their individual freedoms in exchange for perceptions of security. Similarly, one of the most effective motivators to encourage excess consumption is fear.  And the media, whose primary interest has been to sell ad space/time, has found that nothing holds people’s attention like shocking stories that engender fear. And fear of the ‘other’ most especially.

I’m not saying that race did not play an enormous part what happened that night in February, 2012. And I cannot imagine what it must be like to be the parent of colour today. I possess a very capable and empathetic imagination, but how can I possibly know what it would be like to have to tell your son that there are irrational people out there who will fear you for no other reason than the colour of your skin, and that you need to be aware of that and behave in inauthentic ways to make sure you play no part in precipitating some senseless act of violence.  Charles Blow offers an eloquent and heart-braking example of what many parents in the US must feel they should do to keep their children safe. More eloquent still is  Dr. Donald E. Grant Jr.’s response here.

Yes, it is about race. But underneath that, it is about fear. And what frightens me more is that I don’t think there is anything Charles Blow or Dr. Grant could say to their sons to keep them safe.

When a whole system perpetuates and legally validates irrational fear, I don’t think telling someone not to run, or walk, or look ‘too Black’ or dress differently is going to make a difference. Once someone’s fear has made them delusional, there is simply no accommodating it.