Trayvon and Zimmerman: A “good faith” breakdown?

In the comboxes, someone wondered earlier today why I had not written anything about the killing of Trayvon Martin by a “neighborhood watch” volunteer named George Zimmerman. Since I don’t watch the news or read papers anymore, I only became aware of it yesterday, and it seems the political world was slow to come to it, too.

It’s a dreadful story; my heart cannot help but go out to the family of Trayvon Martin, and my prayer is that this case gets a thorough and honest investigation which will result in justice being done.

Much is being assumed of this case, when not everything is yet known, and some are flinging about rumors, and half-truths very easily. Justice for Trayvon Martin must be rooted in truth, or it can never be just. The reading I’ve done around the web these last few hours makes me worry if truth is going to be one of those stretchable things, if the case is permitted to be politicized.

Neighborhood watches can be good things — everyone wants to feel like they are secure in their houses — but I also think it’s possible that some people involved in them can fall into a trap of becoming too suspicious, too quickly. I have no idea if this is true in Zimmerman’s case; I’m not sure anyone else knows it with absolute certainty, at this point, either.

The other day in First Things, I asked whether assumptions of “good faith” are things Americans are willing to make, anymore. Is that what is at the root of this story — the inability of people to give the benefit of a doubt to each other? Was Zimmerman unable to make a good faith assumption that a “hoody-wearing” Trayvon was just hanging out?

If so, why not? Was he too gung-ho, too willing to believe the worst, incapable of assuming good faith?

Now, as this tragedy becomes more widely known and Zimmerman’s family attempts to defend him, is it impossible to give them the benefit of a doubt, at least until a thorough investigation is concluded?

These are serious questions. If society has devolved to the point where we can no longer extend an assumption of good faith to each other, to someone walking home from a convenience store, or knocking on our door; to our neighbors, or our police, or our civic leadership and so forth, then our entire society will inevitably and wholly break down. Indeed, I worry that this story may well be a micro-illustration of the macro-misery toward which our society — and our nation — is headed, if we cannot find a way to pull back from our growing (and sadly, often justified) instinct to distrust, and our unwillingness to extend to each other the benefits-of-a-doubt we all require, sometimes.

I am not sure we can do it; it may be too late — all too far gone. That’s a very disturbing thought.

One would have to be foolish to believe that racism is not still a problem in America. But I think one would have to be equally foolish to insist, as I heard on the radio this afternoon, that “American blacks are under attack.” That seems, to me, to be a dishonest and unhelpful idea to promote. As someone is quote as saying here, “this is not a black and white thing; it’s a right and wrong thing.”

Meanwhile, Ace is wondering why some things are so clear, to the press, while other things are so murky; a question that may also be connected with our inability to assume good faith.

Max Lindenman takes a look at two instances in his life that might have illustrated “white boy privilege” and writes:

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.”

Attorney William Jacobson is hoping that justice will be thorough in its questions and answers:

Let’s allow the facts to come in before we opine on the legal significance of the facts. Did Zimmerman hunt Martin down, or did the two come into unexpected contact with deadly results? It could be important.

Given the high political profile the case already has taken, we owe it to the victim and the accused for there to be a professional investigation free from politics.

We owe it to the nation, too, I think.

Meanwhile, Bookworm, who is also a lawyer, is meanwhile disturbed by the way the media is reporting the story before everything is known. I don’t know if I agree with her re Obama’s remarks, today. Yes, they could have been politically motivated, of course — Obama has certainly proved himself capable of cynical maneuvering and it was his campaign that said no crisis should ever go to waste. But they could simply be his feelings, too. I’m going to give a benefit of a doubt.

Related:
This cannot be an easy thing for Zimmerman’s parents, either.

Sent in by reader Kate: I’d forgotten about this story — which, I guess, is what happens when a story does not become politicized.

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About Elizabeth Scalia