Our allegedly "post-racial" nation is once again divided along the fault line of race. William Faulkner's prophetic quote from the last century has come back to haunt us in this century: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
Faulkner's quote haunts us because of the recent verdict in the George Zimmerman trial.
The story is by now well known: George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchmen in a Florida community, was acquitted of all charges -- murder and manslaughter -- in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old unarmed black teenager. Martin was perceived to be a suspect because he was wearing the signature piece of clothing that some associate with violent young black males: a hoodie. Not only that, but Martin was also "walking while black" in a gated community.
Not one person of African descent, male or female, served on the jury in the Zimmerman trial. And once again, the nation has sadly shown to be neither colorblind nor post-racial with an all-white jury. Furthermore, the notion that an all-white female jury would render a fairer outcome than an all-white male jury assumes racial bias is gender-specific.
Just as racial bias isn't gender-specific, it is also not race-specific. Zimmerman is of mixed ethnic descent (mother's Peruvian, and father's Jewish) and identifies as Hispanic.
However, the question many are still asking even after the verdict is whether Zimmerman was motivated by racism. After all, he, too, is a person of color. So was Zimmerman racially profiling Trayvon?
Racial, gender, gender-expression, and the all the other biases float freely through society, landing on all. Just because you're a person of color or a member of an oppressed group doesn't mean you don't buy into racial stereotypes and cultural attitudes. These themes inform our judgments and actions toward others as well as your own group. (Case in point: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.)
As a matter-of-fact, the bombardment of stereotypes has proven to have both subtle and unintended consequences toward people of different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, classes, and religions, to name just a few. And it's not just everyday people who succumb: Geraldo Rivera, a renowned Latino, stated that Trayvon wearing a hoodie was "as much responsible" for his death as Zimmerman's pistol. Of course, Rivera later recanted.
A young man has become the symbol of the horrific result of such stereotyping, and is fast becoming the symbol for a movement. Just as Matthew Shepard's death galvanized a nation, Trayvon Martin's death is doing the same.
In 1998 both James Byrd Jr. and Matthew Shepard were victims of bias-motivated crimes. Byrd, an African American, was murdered by three white supremacists who chained him to the back of their pickup truck by his ankles and dragged him three miles along an asphalt road until he was dismembered. Shepard was beaten, tortured, tethered to a fence, and left to die because he was gay.
The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, also known as the Matthew Shepard Act, was passed. The measure expanded the federal hate-crimes law to include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived race, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
With Florida's Stand Your Ground Law permitting Zimmerman to walk without charges, the Shepard-Byrd statute not only reminds us of how bias-motivated crimes link gays and blacks together, but that standing together is the best hope for Trayvon Martin and his family as they seek justice.