Trayvon Martin, White-Boy Privilege and Me

On its face, the legal justification for Trayvon Martin’s shooting — Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows citizens to use deadly force to protect themselves or others from harm — is race-blind. The question remains whether the same can be said for George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch captain who pulled the trigger. His father says absolutely so — George, a former altar boy, had plenty of black friends, and even some black relatives. Though some listeners claim to have heard Zimmerman mutter, “fucking coons” while reporting Martin’s movements to police dispatchers, others hear “tools” or “punks.”

In the coming weeks, America will probably learn more about Zimmerman and his mindset than it ever wanted to know. Whatever mixture of affection and disaffection comes out in the wash, however, won’t likely alter what’s become conventional wisdom among blacks: that around anyone claiming to protect either private property or the public peace, they’d better watch their step. In her blog, Watch and Pray for Our Children, Dr. Michelle Johnson explains how she aquaints her kids with what she calls “the rules”:

3. Know who you are. You can’t do everything they do. In other words, just because your white friend does something that doesn’t mean you can do the same. Whether it’s hanging at the mall or going to a house party, police, teachers, and other authorities treat white children differently than black children. When my daughter is old enough to hang with friends in this manner, this will be one of “the rules.”

4. Go where you say you are going and come straight home. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time can lead to being falsely accused of crimes. Every year we hear about another person, usually a black male, who served time for a crime he didn’t commit. As a parent, I’m not trying to smother my child by making her check in with me. I just want to know where she is so I can vouch for her whereabouts.

Is Johnson exercising every mother’s God-given right by being alarmist? Maybe so. But I’ve experienced the exact flip side of her worst-case scenario: police officers have generally treated me with indugence. Call ‘em “Sir” and don’t argue, the rule goes, and the officers will let me off with a warning, or at worst a ticket for “waste of finite resources,” which adds no points to the license. On at least two occasions, I had reason to believe that the benevolence I experienced had something to do with my race.

Possible Instance of White-Boy Privilege No. 1: Freshman year of college. I went to a keg party somewhere in downtown Phoenix with a small mob led by a volatile Bostonian named Brian. Within an hour, Brian had gotten himself into a fight, and the lot of us ejected onto the sidewalk. “We’re going back in,” shouted Brian, like Henry V at Harfleur, and proceeded to arm the storming party, your narrator included, with broken beer bottles.

Just then, a police cruiser pulled up and an officer stepped out. With his sidearm still safely in its holster, he asked what the hell we thought we were doing. When Brian began to babble back an answer through bloodied lips, the policeman cut him off. “Listen,” he said, in elder-brotherly tones, “I don’t have time to deal with this kind of nonsense. I’ve got to worry about Crips in that apartment compex” — he pointed East — “and Bloods in that apartment complex” — he pointed West. “Do yourselves and me a favor: drop this high-school crap and go home.” We did.

That winter, when I was home in New York on break, I told the story to a black guy I’d known in school. He sighed, rolled his eyes, made a number of other gestures that spelled out “what fools these mortals be,” and said, “You realize, if that was me, I’d be under the jail, right?” I did not dispute him.

Possible instance of White-Boy Privilege No. 2. When I began working at JP Morgan Chase, I was between cars. Reaching the office meant taking one bus to 24th St. and Van Buren, and changing to another that would take me to 16th and Buckeye; coming home meant doing the same thing in reverse. The outward trip, which I made in midmorning, was fine. The return trip, which began around nine in the evening, was a different matter. As a hub of drug-dealing and prostitution, 24th and Van Buren is — or, at any rate, was — a regular microcosm of urban blight. Standing on that corner for half an hour in business-casual, I felt like the last egg roll in a Chinese buffet.

One evening, the vibe was especially toxic. The parking lot of the Shell station behind the bus stop was filled with hard-eyed, shabbily dressed people I took to be hookers and other vice-industry professionals. I had the sense every New Yorker develops of being eyed up, cased as a possible target. A couple of men rode by on bicycles and threw me pointed looks. Reverting to habits learned over a hundred hours on dozens of subway platforms, I did my best to look nonchalant, keeping my head still as I turned my eyes up the street, hoping to catch sight of the approaching bus.

Just then three or four police cruisers rumbled into Shell’s parking lot. When the officers began rousting and interrogating the loiterers, I felt like damsels must have felt when Bengal Lancers rescued them from Pathans on the Northwest Frontier. But the chivalry of the Phoenix Police Department turned out to exceed my wildest expecations. After the policemen finished their business — which, apparently, did not include arresting anyone — one of the officers asked me where I lived. When I told him, he offered me a ride home.

“Hell, yes,” I said. “I’ll even tip you.”

In his short story “Sonny’s Blues,” James Baldwin has a black woman tell her son how a car full of white men ran over his uncle, killing him, with no other motive than they were drunk, bored, and assured of getting away with it. “I’m telling you this,” she explains to the young man, “because you got a brother. And because the world ain’t changed.”

Baldwin set that scene during World War Two. Nowadays, in Mississippi, running over a black man with racial malice aforethought will get you life in prison, as 19-year-old Deryl Dedmon just discovered to his sorrow. Interracial marriages among blacks, whites and Latinos have increased tenfold since the 1960s. The product of one such marriage is in the White House, his black authenticity publicly challenged by a black man who would unseat him. Where race relations are concerned, the world really does appear to have changed, at least a little.

That’s all great. I do wish, though, that things would change a little more, to the point where basically good black kids could expect to be sent home with a lecture when they’re acting like morons, or a friendly ride home if they find themselves caught in a nasty neighborhood. Maybe that kind of thing does happen, but not, apparently, with enough regularity to sooth the fears of Michelle Johnson. I’ll welcome the day she feels free to tell her kids what my mother told me, which was basically, “Close the door quietly when you come in.”

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  • Alisha

    Very poignant piece. Thank you for this.

  • jesme

    Well said, and quite true. When I was a teen, I was routinely stopped, questioned and frisked by Chicago cops, merely because I was there. On one occasion, cops surrounded me with drawn guns because someone who resembled me–a young black male–was supposedly in the area toting a gun.

    I have so far read no evidence whatsoever that Trayvon Martin did anything to bring on his tragic fate. He seems to have been a totally innocent young man, minding his own business. Horrible.


    At the risk of giving offense, I must mention one aspect of this affair, and so many others, that often troubles me. I think that black American culture bears some measure of blame for this problem. The huge amount of crime in our communities has created an unfair image of young black men as criminals in training. But there’s enough trough to the stereotype to make the lives of such men quite miserable. Yes, non-black people are wrong to stigmatize black men. But shouldn’t black men confront the fact that, as a group, we commit an ungodly amount of crime–including about half of all the country’s murders? I think there’s a real moral responsibility there. And I think we as a people should try to address this issue.

  • grouper

    George Zimmerman, surname notwithstanding, is not what most people think of when they think of “white man.” He is Hispanic. Does that change your assumptions any? If Zimmerman were shot by a Caucasian white man, would Z. be described as white? Or Hispanic? What if an Asian man were involved? What if an African-American man shot Z — white or Hispanic?

    It seems that Z. did use the term “coons” to refer to African-Americans, which implies some level of ill-feeling. Imagine that, a racist Hispanic. Does that twist your noodle?

    When the lede is oh so politically correct, it’s probably wrong.

  • soren

    There’s a 13 year old kid in Kansas City who was doused an gasoline and set on fire in Kansas City just because he was white… you’ve probably never heard of him so spare me this talk about “white boy” privilege considering the discrepancy of the reactions between the two cases.

    [You want to hear noise? Hit the streets and make it yourself.]

  • pbeat

    I thought this was a very thought provoking article. I also notice that by the comments, you have been proven correct. Blacks know the discrimination they have received but it is harder for a white to recognize his own advantages with the police. It is rare to see it written anywhere. There are many cases of white/reverse discrimination which one of your responders emphatically pointed out, but not white advantages. You will also notice a white misconception between other races and discrimination. Some commentors thought it would be ludacris for Latinos to discriminate against Blacks. I mean aren’t they same? American whites have a perpetual habit of putting all other races in one big melting pot of discrimination. I have friends who refer to all Latinos as “Mexicans” and even when pointing it out, it doesn’t seem to register. (“They all look alike”). I believe this case was about race. One of your own black responders somehow tried to make the black community responsible for the misconception that all black kids could be burglars. Trayvon Martin is not responsible for the crimes of those of his race. George Zimmerman, who obviously considered himself a surrogate of the racist police force, was under the misconception that black kids wandering the streets in the rain are up to good. To the point, like your link to the Mississippi murderer shows, they are sure in their minds that this person had to have done something wrong. They have even been taken to the point where he would be better off dead than escape to someday attack and maybe kill or rape or burglar a neighbor. I beleive they use the term “one dead nigger, blah blah blah”

    It has been changing slowly as you have said and this case could have a huge impact on how it changes. If it can be proven, possibly by George Zimmerman himself that even though he may have black friends, blacks out lurking in the neighborhood were of a different class. He knows his black friends, he doesn’t know these lurking hoodie wearing blacks. He was profiling. In his head, a white in the neighborhood and a black send out two different responses. How did a boy walking in the rain appear to be on drugs? Up to no good? They always get away? or maybe not this time, maybe not by George Zimmerman. He had the whole M.O. figured out as soon as he saw the kid was black and started lurking behind him. I even heard a ridiculous argument that Trayvon shouldn’t have been wearing a hoodie. Believe me, George Zimmerman would have realized he was black if he were wearing a prom dress and even more discriminatory. I think everyone can agree that since Trayvon wasn’t on drugs or casing a joint, there was no cause to think he was. The whole thing is recorded like in real time. From his 911 call to other 911 calls to the witness on Trayvon’s cell phone, the whole story is like a transcript. George could have used the “I was attacked by a black kid from behind” self defense excuse if the dispatcher hadn’t been recorded trying to stop him from running after the kid, whose conversation was overheard by a witness a minute later when he caught up to him. “Why are you following me?” What are you doing here to skuffle skuffle , the kid screaming for help and then, BOOM. The Police were apparently not equipped to do a cover up or tried their best since they didn’t talk to ANY of the people who made the 911 calls. This is a watershed moment in racial relations and the police because it was all recorded and overheard. As more whites join Al Sharpton and all blacks and any group dicriminated against, it could become a bigger moment than the Civil Rights Era. Maybe Al Sharpton doesn’t have to be the Uniter, maybe we don’t have Martin Luther King, but hell, we got the black and white President who actually could have been the father of Trayvon Martin Luther King Obama. This is a story that the President could get behind being a victim of it every day. How many Presidents have had to listen to someone like Glenn Beck say that he doesn’t know if this President is racist, hates, white people or what? or what? How about the President take this thing head on and everyone in the blogosphere and any other medium possible call for the facts, call for justice, call for an end to police discrimination, all discrimination.

  • pj

    this article was very well written but i have to say that the rules seen to promote racist belief……if i teach my child he will be treated different then he will- therefor it is racist. this is the year 2012, we have been long past that era. the problem is parent are now re-establishing racism by this type of teaching. as well as creating reverse racism, which you never hear anything about. i am sorry but WE are creating and causing racism by teaching our children to believe they are different and that people are racist. also treyvon is not the only child to get murdered. there is no reason he is any different from the thousands of other children that he should get special national attention while others are left to die silently unheard of. stop the spread of hate and indifference and racism.

  • Melody

    pj said “…the rules seen to promote racist belief……if i teach my child he will be treated different then he will- therefor it is racist….i am sorry but WE are creating and causing racism by teaching our children to believe they are different and that people are racist. .”
    I can’t agree. Racism exists. We have no control over other people. But as parents we have an obligation to try to keep our children out of harm’s way. An analogy; if we have a teenage daughter, do we tell her that it isn’t safe to go certain places by herself at night? We aren’t creating a bogeyman, we’re acknowledging reality. I totally understand why Dr. Michelle Johnson made “the rules” for her kids. We need to change society but kids have to survive in the meantime.

  • Melody

    Of course the Trayvon Martin incident is an example of racism. But it is also an example of tribalism. “Us” vs “Them”. The way society is polarized right now; along political and ideological lines, along religious lines, only exacerbates this tribalism. We have to find ways to bridge the gaps if we’re going to survive as a society.

  • Bill Tobin

    What a dissappointment this piece is. Just a case of pandering. Even Max, a man I used to admire, wants to be loved. I guarantee that his friends “armed with broken beer bottles” were respectful towards those evil Phoenix cops. In my own extensive experience with angry black mobs, they are never respectful or even a bit reasonable. Admit it Max, the black culture which produces these kids is always angry and aggressive.Yes, they will always be arrested, as they should be. Those phony privileged white boy stories you tell are childish. Did you refuse the second cop’s offer of a ride? Can you see why it was offered?Stop appeasing. You sound like a spoiled white boy on the left.

    [Pandering? Me? To my right-of-Genghis-Khan readership? Hell you say.]

  • Mike R

    Not saying that your experience would be atypical for a white kid dealing with police nor disagree that blacks would in general have the opposite. But, it does not always happen that way and I can personally attest as a white kid and a son of a cop when some 30 years ago I was pulled over. The officer ( a white guy) ticketed me for a rolling stop and following too closely. I followed the “rules” and politely let him know my dad was a cop when I passed him a PBA card. Well he flipped it back and said that “Shi* means nothing to me”. So you see it doesnt always hold true. Now, the real issue here if you ask me is the presumptions being taken by all sides rather than letting the facts come to light. What I find most disappointing is that our POTUS inserted himself and has raised even more tension before allowing the facts to come to light.

  • Christine

    It’s late to weigh in and I have wanted to be cautious because of the lack of information, the hysteria and the issues of crime, police, color and the South.
    Having seen both sides of this issue, my question is, how many African American police officers are there in the Jacksonville police department? In our community in which whites are the minority, our mayor, police chief, and leading businessmen are black. Our police force is majority black. Our the racial shouts aimed also at African American police officers? I just wonder.

  • Christine

    I mean ARE the shouts……I plan to ask some friends who are A-A police officers what they think of this. I know they are working hard to build positive relationships with young black students in our community. Does this make it harder?
    Thomas Sowell says:
    Race hustlers who stir up paranoia and belligerence are doing no favor to minority youngsters. There is no way to know how many of these youngsters’ confrontations with the police or others in authority have been needlessly aggravated by the steady drumbeat of racial hype they have been bombarded with.

  • jonna


    good post; I have a bi-racial child and racism is top-down, bottom-up, inside-out and 6 ways to Sunday. In other words, coming from all directions.

    Thomas Sowell is a truly wise man who also happens to be a man of color.
    but a man first!

    thank you

  • jonna

    One more item; if anyone comes back to read this thread.

    When do we acknowledge the “change” our country has experienced??

    If we are no better now than prior to the Civil Rights movement of the 60′s, no better than when Jim Crow was alive and well, as some people in the media have declared then what’s the point?

    I know that this is not true; my son is bi-racial, born in Oklahoma in 1985; believe me times have changed.


  • Christine

    HI Jonna
    I would love to continue this discussion–perhaps Max could put us in touch electronically? I have lived in the rural South for nearly 20 years, most of it in ministry to African American children and elders who live in poverty. There are no easy answers, but I blanch at leaders whose purpose seems to be (if not intentional, then derivative) stirring up anger, spite, mean-spiritedness, cruelty. They teach our youth to judge first, and ask questions….never. Why seek the truth when a scenario can be painted with angry imagery? It isn’t good for our youth–our future. Sadly, it is nearly impossible to have a discussion about it across racial lines, because one is simply branded and a deaf ear turned.

  • Julie Robison

    Well-written, and well-said!

    I especially love your one-liners: “Standing on that corner for half an hour in business-casual, I felt like the last egg roll in a Chinese buffet.”