What Is Character Pt. I, by J. Marcus
What is character? If you look up the actual definition via Merriam-Webster, 2a: one of the attributes or features that make up and distinguish an individual. 2c: the complex of mental and ethical traits marking and often individualizing a person, group, or nation.
Now take a minute and think about what you believe to be your actual character in this world. Once you think you have a decent understanding, shift your focus to what you believe the character of the U.S. is today. Were you able to stop, process, and evaluate properly, or did you allow quick points of reference to roll from your brain as simple as your breathing?
After the recent news that George Zimmerman was found completely ‘not guilty’ for any wrongdoing in the murder of Trayvon Martin, I urged myself to take a couple of days to reflect on the matter before reacting. Even with that time, the reality that this could happen and the disappointment that I feel as a human being will not be easily dismissed. I did not know either of these individuals personally, but from an outsiders perspective this verdict has left me perplexed as to the morale and rational logic behind this young man’s early demise, and our country’s impending future.
It is true that young men, and especially that of color, are being murdered everyday. To say that Trayvon Martin was any more or less special is to lose sight of the point. His murder was chosen in some way to be an opportunity for us as parents, family, friends, and community members to take action against problems that we have continually chosen to ignore: Gun violence and racism in America.
One could very well argue that appearances play a very significant factor in how we interact on a daily basis. For better or worse, there are perceptions based on years of practice that reinforce how we see the world. People in suits and nice dresses are considered less of a threat than someone who looks tattered and unkept. How one person or a group of people carry themselves is then an indication of their collective character (vis-à-vis stereotypes). For some people, they are never given a choice to carry themselves in any other manner than that which their environment offers, teaches, and reinforces. This self-loathing only damages the psyche of its people, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Should Trayvon have been more aware of the message that his outfit created, maybe? But the young man was seventeen years old. Any adult today will look back at some of the things they did as a teenager, and shake their head or laugh at what can now only be interpreted as opportunities (of self expression) to understand who you were trying to be at such a young age. Blaming Trayvon for wearing a hooded sweatshirt is the equivalent to blaming a woman for being raped because her outfit was too provocative. We all have daughters, sisters, cousins, and friends who if attacked for no other reason than what they were wearing, we would be appalled at the accusation that they invited trouble. I would agree that men of color should be ever more cognizant of the way they present themselves in public today. I would no doubt like to live in a perfect world that is blind to race and appearance, but that is the imperfection of being human.
On the other hand, when you consider that an adult man chooses to represent himself as an extension of the law, he would thereby act accordingly. As this article in the Washington Post points out, George Zimmerman’s character would reflect that of someone who believes himself to be above the law. It is fairly documented that Mr. Zimmerman even placed a phone call to the police, and in speaking with the dispatcher, chose to ignore their advice for restraint and decided to proceed with confrontation. This is a man who has taken responsibility for the sake of others by carrying a weapon, one that is capable of causing multiple immediate deaths. This man’s character has had time to mature and build a foundation, while a young teen is just beginning to find out who they are. If Zimmerman’s character were to practice sound judgment, he would seek peace by practicing restraint. Instead, we are left to bear witness to the slaying of a young person’s life, because it has seemingly become okay to question and marshal over undesirable people walking through protected neighborhoods.
I live in sunny California, Los Angeles to be specific. There are at times people who do not present themselves in such a manner as I believe may be appropriate but, I accept them nonetheless. If someone appears to be engaging in a criminal activity, assessing my options on how to proceed shall only be reserved for the time and place of this experience. I would like to believe that in such instances, I would practice sound and prudent judgment, which would hopefully be highly affective at resolving the situation. But I am not there, nor have I trained myself to handle that specific situation. The police practice this (I hope) on a constant basis, giving them a major advantage when the time calls. A young teenage boy confronted by authority has little to no experience in dealing with these problems, and is usually feeling defensive due to the lack of respect considering their age. An adult who claims to align himself with the character of the police would then know the perception that any individual would react with, given the situation. All of this reminds the vast majority of citizens about Oscar Grant who was prematurely killed for what should have been a routine situation on the BART in Oakland. Everyone should consider this the early warning signs of how the eyes of the law may protect those who wield its sword of justice. When someone goes on trial for committing a crime, my understanding is that we are judging his or her character. Somehow, a jury finds no trouble in upholding such behavior as acceptable in the eyes of the law, with no regard to its precedent.