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Tribal America

Last year several months after the death of Trayvon Martin, Intersections’ hosted a Washington Dialogue to explore root causes of how and why Trayvon Martin ended up being stalked and shot to death while walking home through the gated community he was visiting. The small group was diverse. A black man and a black woman, an Egyptian, two men from Iran, two white men and a white woman, and others of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. In the room were noted religious leaders, civil rights leaders, and someone who had been head of a US agency in Palestine.

We asked two “simple” questions: When have you been scared by someone else’s mere presence? When has your presence caused someone else to be afraid?

The underlying assumption of the question is that our experiences create in us intuitive, if not instinctive, reactions to certain situations and people. And while we like to think of our civilization, and especially America, as developed beyond animal instincts, the question arises: How common is George Zimmerman’s reaction to Trayvon Martin? Was it an aberration? Where does it come from?

For two awe-inspiring hours, our group of 15 leaders let down their hair and had – according to them – one of the deepest conversations they had ever had on race.

What I think we learned that day nearly a year ago comes to the fore today in the wake of the not guilty verdict. It’s all about the deeply tribal nature of our society. Indeed, that was the somber conclusion of the group:  America is, as is much of the world, still very tribal.

Let me break from discussion of our dialogue to say something about the Zimmerman trial and the verdict. I am a recovering lawyer. I defended an accused rapist while in the Army JAG in the early 1970’s. I can remember it like it was yesterday. The charges against my client were dismissed because the victim was not mentally competent to testify and without her testimony there was no case. What I learned then as a very young, novice trial lawyer is that for the law, the “Truth” is only what is provable under the rules of evidence in effect at that time, on that day, in that court room, with the people there. It has no relationship to the real, objective “truth.” Now, in the George Zimmerman trial, the “truth” for the jurors was only what the rules of evidence allowed in that court room at that time and on those days with those people.

The inherent unfairness of the verdict is that George Zimmerman, who was on neighborhood patrol that night, violated every rule of such citizen watch patrols (watch, don’t engage, call for help), disobeyed specific police direction, and then in some way provoked a physical encounter with a young man who was simply walking home and had every right to be where he was. Yet, under Florida criminal law, if that encounter — even though it was provoked by George Zimmerman — results in his being reasonably in fear of his life, he can react with and use deadly force to protect himself. At the end of the trial, the six jurors had reasonable doubt about the guilt of the man, and they found him not guilty. It is unfair, and yet my own instincts most of the time would be that a jury OUGHT to err on the side of doubt in criminal cases. I know that our standard is not perfection, and doubts must be “reasonable” – not “any” doubt. Still, the burden is justifiably stringent and hard to achieve. Jurors should be skeptical and hard to persuade. They should only be so hard to persuade when the defendant is not white, I know, and that is just another consequence of Tribal America.

Now, back to the Washington Dialogue on race. When have you been scared by someone’s mere presence? When has your presence be a source of fear?

The conversation quickly moved to a discussion about the source of these fears. Why does our presence at times provoke fear and suspicion? What is at the core of our reactions to people in some circumstances that leads us to fear when there is no objective basis for fear? One of the answers became clear: We really don’t know each other. Even among this group we admitted we all “stuck with our own kind.” That is, while we knew each other and worked with people of diverse races and backgrounds, when asked: Do any of you have a friend within your closest circle of friends of a different race, the answer for everyone was “I do not.” When it came down to it, this group of people — some who worked in the field of racial tolerance and civil rights — were willing to confess that when it came to their closest ten to 15 friends (people they spent time with in their homes and churches, on picnics and in communion) NO ONE could identify someone from a different race among their close friends and family.

It is so clear that America is still a tribally divided country, and to some degree so is the world. I was reminded of the passages in the book Guns, Germs and Steel, that reflected on early tribal history of human kind. It related original, tribal reactions to “the other”: Kill or be killed. Civilization has come some distance from that place 13,000 years ago, yet the George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin encounter seems so ancient and tribal even today.

There is an urgent need for the "conversation on race that we have never had". Attorney General Eric Holder reiterated that call again his past week. However, what I learned through the conversation we had last year on this topic is that more than a conversation is needed. We need to change how we live, work, play and who we do it with. It is about who goes to our churches and synagogues, who lives next door to us, who swims in our neighborhood pools with us, and who is with us at the “club” and our backyard BBQ. We need to really get to know each other.

The array of social media, technology and other new tools of social engagement is not changing this situation. In some ways it is making it worse. We can sit in our homes and offices and look at our Facebook pages and think we are engaging with people; we are not. Or at least not in a way so that when we see their sons and daughters walking in our neighborhood, we won’t view it as threatening.