I'm told that a long time ago, on a street in Baltimore, a black man killed my grandmother. My father watched her die. Against the usual stereotypes, my dad's mother was struck down not by a robber but by a drunken driver.
The really remarkable thing about the tragedy that scarred my father to the bone is that it had absolutely no impact on me. My father almost never spoke of the accident that took place a good two decades before my birth, and certainly never mentioned the color of the driver. A relative told me after my father died.
But Dad did mention the black color of his first boss in the Post Office back in the 1930s, Mr. George Russell. My father called Mr. Russell "a prince of a man," who treated his employees well whatever their race, and apparently helped my father's career. Mr. Russell's son, George Jr., became a much-respected Baltimore lawyer and judge, breaking a few color barriers along the way.
Dad has been dead for a long time, but, knowing him, I suspect that he mentioned the race of his benefactor but not of the other fellow because he wanted me to grow up inclined to see people of color as potential employers and employees, teachers and students, customers and friends — not as natural born killers.
Dad was a doer, not a bragger. He employed African-Americans, and though he didn't make a big deal about it, I suspect that he treated them fairly at a time and place when that was not the norm. Now, a generation after his death, my large Sicilian-American extended family has two, soon to be three, African-American members by marriage and a few mixed-race children by birth. Despite the time and place of his upbringing, Dad didn't mind having relatives that, as President Obama put it, look like Trayvon Martin. Unless you like racial profiling, looks are only skin deep.
Dad was not politically correct. He despised hooligans whatever their race, and warned of but never reveled in the fact that there were more of them in some black neighborhoods where families had broken down and police had given up. But when speaking about blacks, he spent far more time talking about the good people he knew than the other kind. That set us up to have good relations with those of other races.
Unfortunately, George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin may have been set up in a different way.
From the recent New York Times story "In the eye of a firestorm," George Zimmerman comes off as a decent guy and not a racist, but in his role as neighborhood-watch coordinator in a community that had suffered from crime, he was set up to expect young black-male strangers to be up to no good. He was confrontational rather than diplomatic in the moments leading up to his fatal struggle with Trayvon Martin. He probably thought that you just can't give in to those folks.
Trayvon Martin was likely set up, too. After years of hearing about white racism in the media and in schools, Martin no doubt expected white strangers to be after him as a black man. Talking rather than acting would have meant forfeiting his manhood.
It strikes me that a lot of us get set up in negative ways, by political activists and so-called intellectuals, white and black, who stand to profit from anger and group solidarity rather than from common understanding.
That is a mentality that my dad could never understand. n