For months, the country was glued to coverage of the George Zimmerman trial. As everyone knows by now, Zimmerman was charged with murdering an unarmed, 17-year-old African American, Trayvon Martin. And as we all know, Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges.
Like many people, I was appalled by the verdict. And like many, I couldn’t imagine the pain of Trayvon’s parents having to watch the person, who pursued and killed their son, walk free. I’ve thought about Trayvon that night, walking back from a store, carrying an iced tea and Skittles, talking on the phone, unaware that his moments left on this Earth were few.
Two of the main culprits in Trayvon Martin’s death are ignorance and fear. Zimmerman, based preconceived notions, believed that a teenaged, black male in America was a threat, so he pursued him. People, who consider themselves well-educated liberals, shook their collective heads in disgust, but I had seen evidence that showed many of these people are guilty of the same ignorance.
A few months ago, I was approached, while walking with my friend, in downtown Boston. A representative for the League of Conservation voters asked if I would be interested in working on behalf of Congressman Ed Markey to help him win the Democratic primary to fill the senate seat vacated by John Kerry. And, while I’ve long prided myself on being politically above the fray, the money – $80 a day, $90 if I used my car – was too good to pass up.
So I went in for an interview, passed a criminal background check and was offered the job just a couple of days after being approached.
When I arrived for work the first day, I was told that we would be going from door-to-door in various towns and cities, reciting a script and asking people who they were planning to vote for and recording the results.
One of the first things I noticed after getting there that first day was that the majority of people hired for the same position were African American. I felt out of place at first – it was hard not to. Most of us grow up with this belief that we are too intelligent to judge people based on race, but we do. I did.
I think it’s human nature, albeit an ugly part, and something that most of us won’t ever admit. But, this isn’t some trite story about how I realized – under everything – we’re all really the same. No, at the core it’s about how I, as a white guy, wasn’t faced with nearly the same challenges as my African American coworkers, who performed the same job.
Showing up to the canvassing headquarters in Porter Square each day began with signing in, a short meeting with your designated “team” and finding out which city or town we’d be in that day. We were each handed an iPod Touch, which had an app with the names, ages, party affiliation and addresses of people in a given area. We left in randomly assigned groups of 4 or 5 people from each team, making our way to that day’s location.
The houses we were going to had all been carefully selected. They were almost exclusively Democrats, who voted regularly and therefore were more likely to vote in the special, Senate election primary.
A typical day involved knocking on around 100 doors in a 7 hour stretch, with an hour break. Not surprisingly, many people, who were actually home, refused to answer. Some told me to go away and one especially delightful, elderly lady in Revere told me to “Fuck off.” A woman in Belmont came up to me when I was sitting on a curb, looking at a map, and asked me if I thought I should be doing what I was doing in light of the Marathon bombing, which had taken place the week prior. I was polite enough, despite the absurdity of the question and she left me alone soon after.
But as I began trading stories with the other canvassers, I realized that what I had been going through was nothing compared to most of my male black coworkers. Many had gotten the police called on them multiple times. Another person said that as he approached one of the houses on his list, he witnessed a man grab what he thought was a gun, he didn’t stay to find out. These kinds of stories were repeated daily.
Remember, this all happened in Massachusetts, the great Liberal utopia. Most of the people who’d been so afraid of having a black man simply knock on their door had voted for Barack Obama (and Deval Patrick). It likely made them feel good to be able to say that they’d voted for the first African American president in history, as if they were part of racial progress in America. And yet, when confronted with an African American at their own front door, they became fearful and acted like bigots.
Race still matters, even when people tell themselves that they don’t have a racist bone in their body. I’ve seen different. The people, who called the police or became frightened by having an African American come to their door, are guilty of the same ignorance that killed Trayvon Martin.
We’ve no doubt made a lot of progress in America in terms of race, but not as much as people would like to think. I have it easy as a 20-something white guy. I know that. Very few people thought I was walking around their cities or towns to do something nefarious, yet many homeowners believed my African American coworkers were, despite the fact that we were doing identical jobs. What really matters, in the end, is that we weren’t identical races.