Monday, July 22, 2013

Trayvon’s “American Skin (41 Shots)” by Bruce Springsteen

When Bruce Springsteen first performed “American Skin” he was widely criticized for performing a song about the shooting death of Amadou Diallo. On February 9th, 1999,Four police officers shot at him 41 times, (19 that actually hit Amadou) as he reached into his pocket to take out his wallet. The police offices were acquitted of any crimes as discussions of racial profiling and police brutality spread across America partially due to Springsteen bringing attention to this event.

Days after George Zimmerman was acquitted of in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Springsteen performed “American Skin,” dedicating it to Trayvon, “We’ll send this letter back home for justice for Trayvon Martin.”

While the deaths of Diallo and Martin are different in many ways "American Skin" remind us of the underlying reality for both of these men that as Springsteen sings “You can get killed for living in your American skin.”

As President Obama so eloquently reflected, there is a tension between the statistics about black males and our racist reactions.

More than ever we need to work to understand the context of what our different skins mean and how they define for each of us what it means to be American. Events in our culture stick to us differently. For me the Japanese internment camps during World War II are probably more forward in my thoughts about America than for other people, which has to do with the fact that I’m Asian.

Obama’s explanation of the context of people’s reactions is critical for us to consider because as much as we have one unified American experience, what sticks with us, what shapes our perspective has to do with how we form our identity as much as how society views us.

On one side we have outrage and disappointment that a country that seems so progressive has failed to bring justice. On the other side are arguments that Trayvon was a “punk,” that the justice system followed it’s own terms (which somehow makes this verdict okay), and that Zimmerman’s reactions were somehow justified.

We shamefully can’t even bring up gun control with this case. No police officer would have used their gun the way that Zimmerman did on Trayvon because of their training. This gross misuse of a gun puts into question the validity of having a hand gun as a self-defense tool, the training that must be required before owning a gun and the people in our society refuses to stand up against the gun companies and to each other to do what is right.

Summer weekends bring death to the streets of Chicago, mostly on the Southwest side of the city. It makes the local news but doesn’t make national headlines. I’m sure if one person was shot that looked like my wife, it would. “American Skin” will continue to echo as we struggle to deal with issues of racism in our society. 

There is this idea that we can't slide back to the racism of the past, that racial harmony is a trajectory that America will inevitably reach.  This assumption is dangerous.  Ignorance, scapegoating, racism and inequality are not things of the past.  We must not only celebrate the progress our country has made but also acknowledge that this progress came from very hard work that we need to continue.

Obama is right.  The younger generations are much better at being open and accepting than the older generations.  So it on us to not pass on the worst of ourselves and to let the younger generations challenge our assumptions and our views of the world.  We can do better, we must do better so that the American skin that each of us wear is not a curse but a blessing. 

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