America the Crucible: Thoughts on Trayvon Martin and Reconciliation by M. Nycole Hearon

M. Nycole Hearon

On February 26, 2012, communities across the United States learned that George Zimmerman (“Zimmerman”), a 28-year-old Hispanic male part of a volunteer neighborhood watch in a gated community in Sanford, Florida, shot and killed a17-year-old African-American male named Trayvon Martin (“Martin”). According to 911 tapes, Zimmerman, sitting in his parked vehicle, observed Martin walking in the community and believed Martin was acting suspiciously. Zimmerman stated that Martin kept looking back at him as he was walking.  Against the advice of the 911 Operator, Zimmerman left his vehicle and started following Martin. Zimmerman was recorded as stating, “[Martin] looks like he’s up to no good or on drugs or something.”  When the 911 Operator questioned Zimmerman about the racial identity of Martin, Zimmerman was recorded stating, “He looks black.” 

The events that occurred afterward are unclear.  Zimmerman claims to have followed Martin before turning back and returning to his vehicle. He alleges that Martin followed him to his vehicle, at which time Martin pushed him. A fight ensued that ended with Zimmerman fatally shooting Martin. Zimmerman claimed he shot Martin in self-defense. Varying witness accounts claim that Zimmerman was not in danger when he shot Martin while other contradictory accounts concur with Zimmerman’s statement that Martin was beating him when he shot his gun. 

The facts are disputed by both sides. The events were immediately painted in terms of racial profiling by the media when the Sanford police seemingly failed to act quickly in investigating the shooting death of a young black male in a predominantly white neighborhood.  Definitive racial lines were drawn between African-Americans and “others” when news correspondent, Geraldo Rivera, claimed Trayvon’s hooded sweatshirt contributed to his death because it is the clothing of choice for black gang members.  The hooded sweatshirt became a symbol of racial profiling. The “hoodie”, as it is termed colloquially, was worn by House Representative Bobby Rush on the floor and by the National Basketball Association’s Miami Heat. On March 21, 2012, a “Million Hoodie March” was held to show support for Martin and denounce the Sanford Police for not arresting Zimmerman. 

Fast forward to 2013 and the country is nine days into the Zimmerman trial. We view it live streaming on CNN or catch commentary on other news stations. We are enthralled and we are holding our breath for the outcome. The jury verdict, when it happens, will not be a black and white decision—deliberating about death is always complex; however, the media will paint it in African-American and Anglo-American terms.

There is no question that race is an issue in the United States.  But was race the dispositive factor in the shooting death of Martin? Before official statements were made, the decision was that Martin was killed because he was a young black man who should not be walking in a “good” neighborhood. Why did American citizens align so easily into their mandated roles of African-American versus Anglo-American, or African-American versus “other”?  Why were African-American citizens so quick to agree that Zimmerman was racist? 

Apology and forgiveness abounds between African-Americans and Anglo-Americans (e.g., the recent mea culpa of the cooking giant Paula Deen), but the two cultures have never reconciled our hurts with one another.  We resist creating a shared memory of history and refuse to address the history that makes it so easy to fall into our usual arguments and roles. This brief paper explores whether reconciliation is “too little, too late” for the United States.

Identity Reconstruction

Reconciliation necessarily involves one group in the role of perpetrator and another group in the role of victim.  How these roles have played out in history inform current conflicts and decide how past wounds become aggravated or calmed.[1] The way in which a group collectively remembers its history is filtered through a lens that recalls a hurtful and shameful past in which the group was the victim, while “forgetting” negative information that places the group in the role of oppressor.[2] There is an unconscious enhancing of victim status.[3]

Memory is not static; it is conceived and reconceived through interaction with other people and cultures.[4] Asking the questions of “what happened and who we are” is not just a factual construction, but also a historical and political construction.[5] Political solutions can sometimes codify and entrench present social relations or the political solutions can mask the relations bring about a type of “blindness” to deep hurts that continue to exist.[6]

In the United States the historical and factual memory begins with African-Americans as slaves and Anglo-Americans as oppressive slave owners.  The history moving forward is that of African-Americans as continued victims and Anglo-Americans as continued perpetrators.  Historical facts continue to support the victim and perpetrator model. For example, southern laws against integration and miscegenation, the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1967, and the promulgation of anti-hate enhancement criminal statutes all indicate Anglo-Americans as perpetrators and African-Americans as victims. The passing of the aforementioned acts infers that African-Americans are victims who must be protected from the hatred of Anglo-Americans.  Never mind that the history is largely true, the residual effect  is that African-Americans view suspiciously any overtures by Anglo-Americans to be either a means of oppression or “patriarchal dominance.” The collective memory of black culture does not embrace any other view. On the other hand, Anglo-Americans are constrained by the need to rebel against the characterization (and caricature) of oppressor and forget or ignore the harm because the forgetting is comfortable and remembering is too hard.[7]  There remains an undercurrent of abiding hostility between African-Americans and Anglo-Americans that eventually corrupts future relationships.[8]

In her essay “Reparations After Identity Politics”, author Lawrie Balfour explores how “identity politics” in conjunction with the demand for reparations is a threat to democracy.[9] Balfour writes that in this modern time “freedom is increasingly defined in narrowly economic terms; emancipatory narratives of historical progress have been discredited but not replaced; and left politics [have] been supplanted by left posturing.”[10] In writing this, Balfour asks whether the politics of seeking reparations for past wrongs have turned into broad distinctions of innocent and guilty.  The intent of Balfour’s essay is to force the deeper thought process of distinguishing between real victims and real perpetrators.  There is harm in placing Anglo-Americans in the inescapable box of perpetrator and African-Americans as victims.  While acknowledging the past suffering of African-Americans has the possibility of producing a more democratic culture, it also enforces the perception that African-Americans are overly sensitive and Anglo-Americans must take care not to disregard the culture’s sensitive nature.[11] On the other hand, the view that African-Americans are oversensitive is the perspective created by the dominant culture.[12]  The assumption of oversensitivity distorts the legitimate claims by African-Americans; thus pushing both sides further into their identities as perpetrator and victim.  Unfortunately, the attention placed on not upsetting the oversensitive African-Americans works to deny true pain and suffering felt by African-Americans.

Additionally, Anglo-Americans view any movement by African-Americans to break from the perception of victim as a movement toward revenge for past wrongs.[13]  African-Americans seeking another dimension of group identity seems to inspire what Balfour terms the most “vivid images of white negrophobia.”[14] The ongoing belief that Anglo-Americans view African-Americans as having a festering need for revenge is a perpetrator/victim dichotomy that maintains the identities of Anglo-Americans and African-Americans. But what of the African-American view of victimhood?

This author posits that this country has never addressed the real issues of victim and perpetrator. The historical landscape is one of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”  The group identities of both Anglo-Americans and African-Americans necessitate the nurturing of suspicions on both sides, but neither group has seriously conducted a dialogue with the other side. One African-American attorney writes that she has “collected fully on America’s promise, cresting atop [her] family’s meteoric rise from legal chattel to legal counsel in three generations.”[15] Arguably, African-Americans who deny progress perpetuate the belief that African-Americans are victims. If African-Americans acknowledge, as did the aforementioned attorney, that monumental strides were made in less than a century, that acknowledgement in no way negates the genuine harm committed against African-Americans. It is, however, a movement toward reconciliation.  It is such movement that may dispel Anglo-American suspicions that African-Americans want victimhood in order to maintain the right to enact revenge. The movement that will push Anglo-Americans to acknowledge their own resentment that is fostered by the underlying belief that even if a past wrong is acknowledged, the African-American community will not move forward, but use it as a means of emotional and psychological oppression. 


Ari Kohen, in The Personal and the Political: Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Restorative Justice, writes that reconciliation necessarily means the rebuilding or repairing of a prior relationship.[16] The difficulty arises, however, when no prior relationship existed and now neither side wants a relationship.[17] Additionally, both sides have become entrenched in their view of the other that even in the face of opposing evidence, each side clings to its views of the other.

For example, in the first trial of the four officers who severely beat Rodney King (“King”) in 1991, the jury found the officers not guilty because, as one juror stated, King was in complete control of the situation the entire time.[18] This statement was made despite the fact that the all white jury watched the video.[19] The mental schema needed to believe this truth, despite evidence to the contrary, is one in which the Anglo-American perpetuates the view that African-Americans are a threat to Anglo-Americans. This belief is so real that even in the face of four Anglo-American police officers systematically beating King, the Anglo-American jury holds on to the belief that “[King] is hit in exchange for the blows he never delivered, but which [King] is, by virtue of his blackness, always about to deliver.”[20] This is the salient point of the non-relationship between Anglo-Americans and African-Americans. Each side relates to the other based upon the perceived belief of what each group is about to do. As the group with the identity of perpetrator, Anglo-Americans are always preparing to do some action that constitutes some form of oppression. As the victim group, African-Americans are perceived as always preparing some sort of revenge from which Anglo-Americans must defend.  In different terms, the relationship between Anglo-Americans and African-Americans is one in which constantly feels detrimentally vulnerable, despite no actions that support such a perception.[21] The efforts then must be placed in separating Anglo-Americans and African-Americans from their perverse assumptions and contradictions about the other group. Efforts must be focused on removing the shared perception that one group is a threat to the other. 

Moving Toward Reconciliation

Instead of repairing a relationship, reconciliation for African-Americans and Anglo-Americans must be achieved by first acknowledging that a relationship has never existed between the groups. Both groups have co-existed, but it is in a manner of Israeli/Palestinian conflict: each us waiting for an attack that confirms the need for continual vigilance and defense.

First, each group must acknowledge a shared set of values and/or goals, and that each knows that fellow group members are committed to those goals.[22] The values or goals may be amorphous ideals, e.g., national pride, or specific policies or principles, e.g., equal opportunity, or broad social programs, e.g., building a better America through better education.[23] Common values and/or goals tend to define the group, creating a new distinction and self-perception.[24]

Second, there must be mutual trust.[25] African-Americans and Anglo-Americans must trust one another because mutual trust is the foundation of cooperation.[26] Because exploitation is a possible consequence of trust, the trust must be supported by each group’s belief that the other group will not let the group down, betray the values of the group, or benefit inordinately from the sacrifices of others in the group.[27] Mutual trust enables members of the group to act together as one body to achieve shared goals, especially when success is uncertain and it is not supported by a consistent history of support.[28]

Finally, each group must acknowledge that there is a shared affiliation in their histories. Whether or not each will admit it, African-Americans and Anglo-Americans share in the genetic history of this country. Each side shares the same forefathers, and foremothers. Regardless of how Anglo-Americans and African-Americans came to this country, the success of this country inextricably ties both groups together. To put it plainly, neither group has anywhere else it can go. Moving toward reconciliation is the only option for improved relations between Anglo-Americans and African-Americans, but the question remains whether rehashing the past is a viable option and if so, how far in the past must the dialogue begin.

            Donald Shriver posits that the perpetrator group and the victim group must do something with the past in order to create a new future.[29] Shriver writes, however, that one group publicly admitting its past evils just for promising not to repeat them does not regain dignity.[30] Shriver wrote this sentiment in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, where upon a promise of immunity, white South Africans admitted their specific involvement in apartheid.  The commission’s purpose was to acknowledge past wrongs in exchange for forgiveness by the victims.  The commission did not require the perpetrators to make an apology.  Like Shriver, this author finds that the lack of an apology makes any admitting of wrongdoing irrelevant. Additionally, it is not likely the injured group would believe an apology.  Here, an apology for slavery is too late—African-Americans still have yet to receive their “40 acres and a mule”—and any apology for that period would not be acknowledged unless it came with reparations.  An apology for Jim Crow would only seem obligatory.  And what if in exchange for an apology, Anglo-Americans seek public acknowledgement for their part in defending African-Americans over the course of this country’s history? Many Anglo-Americans died for the cause of freedom and, arguably, without the help of others African-Americans would not have won the fight for freedom. The historical continuum is so vast there no perfect place to begin to admit wrongdoing.

            The only place to start is with a dialogue.  Both sides must seek to create a forum where the past is discussed, not only to move past it, but to create a shared history for the generations who come after.  There must be a removal of the shame associated with this country’s past so that Anglo-Americans and African-Americans do not act in reaction of the blow they think will come. An open dialogue creates shared empathy because it acknowledges a shared history and by sharing the history, each group creates a shared memory that builds solidarity and reliance upon each other.      

[1]Sharon K. Hom & Eric K. Yamamoto, Collective Memory, History, and Social Justice, 47 UCLA L. Rev. 1747, 1756 (2000).



[4]Id. at 1760.


[6]Lawrie Balfour, Reparations After Identity Politics, 33(6) Political Theory 786, 789 (2005).

[7]See Donald W. Shriver, Jr., Forgiveness: A Bridge Across Abysses of Revenge (2002).

[8]Id. at 152.

[9]Balfour, supra n 6, at 789.


[11]Id. at 792.

[12] Id.

[13] Id. at 793.

[14] Id.

[15] Connie Rice, Right Makes Might: How a Dogged Civil-Rights Lawyer, an Ex-gangster and a Risk-taking LAPD Captain Helped Avert a Second Wave of Rodney King Riots, available at

[16]Available at

[17]Id. at 407.

[18]Judith Butler, Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia, Reading Rodney King, Reading Urban Uprising 15 (Robert Gooding Williams, ed. 1993).


[20]Id. at 19. (Emphasis added).

[21]This is not to deny that singular acts rightly have this affect, e.g., armed robbery of an Anglo-American by an African-American, or racial profiling of an African-American motorist by an Anglo-American police officer.

[22]Tommie Selby, Foundations of Black Solidarity: Collective Identity or Common Oppression?, 12(2) Ethics 231, 237 (2002).



[25]Id. at 238.




[29]Shriver, supra n 7, at 157.


© Conflict Change Consulting Ltd.  2014