Zimmerman trial: Inside the mind of how race divides us

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The George Zimmerman trial would never have garnered national attention if a white man had shot a white teenager in a white neighborhood where a neighborhood watch group had sprung up. The trial has dominated headlines because it taps into a theme that continues to rivet Americans:  The ways that race and gender continue to determine whether we think of people different from us as equal or trustworthy.

When experts and trial watchers debate whether Trayvon Martin was on top of George Zimmerman and how extensive Zimmerman's head injuries were, they are actually attempting an analysis of Zimmerman's soul to determine whether enough prejudice lurked there to lead him to kill Martin when he did not need to. They are attempting to determine, the great and late Zionist philosopher Martin Buber might have said, whether Zimmerman was viewing Martin through an I-THOU lens or an I-IT lens. Did he see Martin as fully human or something less than human?

And they could ask the same question about how Trayvon Martin viewed George Zimmerman when he allegedly slammed his head onto the pavement.

The I-THOU versus I-IT dimension is, after all, the fork in the road between empathy and disdain, between being able to put oneself in another's shoes and recoiling at the very notion, between striving for union and struggling against it. And human beings have an inborn psychological Achilles' heel that tends toward the I-IT way of thinking. We are splitters, not lumpers. We tend to divide the world according to what is similar to us and what is dissimilar from us.

This gut-level--and I believe--neurologically encoded resistance to seeing ourselves in others, this focusing on our differences, rather than what we share (such as mortality, the ability to love, the ability to suffer and the ability to create) is, essentially, an obsessive-compulsive pattern. We notice first whether someone is darker than we are, older or younger than we are, fatter or thinner than we are, is driving a car like ours or one much more expensive or one in obvious despair, is female or male, is Jewish or Muslim or Christian. We inherently categorize. It is a reflex.

A person with long, straggly hair, tattoos and dirty jeans walking through a rich neighborhood can arouse suspicion, but a man with a crew cut, in a suit, wearing a Rolex watch can arouse disdain in a poor neighborhood. "What's he up to?" people mutter from their windows. "What kind of trouble is he going to start?"

But the challenge in overcoming prejudice is greater than this. The vast majority of us don't just notice those identified as"other," we have psychological antibodies to letting ourselves commiserate with them. And these antibodies could literally have been encoded in our DNA.

Maybe these antibodies had survival value at some point. Maybe thousands of years ago, subtle differences in gait or the shape of one's head or eyes or ears were linked with whether someone had evolved beyond the wild and had joined civilization. And maybe we retain vestiges of this I-IT vision--now so often misplaced.

Millions of men joke about women sexually, and millions of women joke about men. When Lorena Bobbitt castrated Wayne Bobbitt millions of women giggled (and just imagine what would happen if men joked about a woman whose genitals were savaged for cheating by her husband). When men pursue women sexually (and, increasingly vice-versa), it is often without much, if any, regard for their emotional lives. Black people wonder whether they can get a fair hearing from white people, and white people wonder whether they can get a fair hearing from black people. We interned the Japanese in this country, without a million blacks or whites marching in protest on Washington. We set an arbitrary age for retirement when there is no evidence that people, as a whole, at 65, were or are any less intellectually competent than people at 35. We watched Hitler nearly obliterate the Jews in Germany and beyond before we finally jumped into World War II.

Given Mr. Zimmerman's last name, in fact, several people asked me early on, "Is he Jewish? He doesn't look Jewish, does he?" Why those questions, one wonders? Who cares? What would the answers to them say about whether a man feels threatened, or is attacked, or is being predatory in the wee hours of the night and fires a gun at another man?

Who cares? Humans care. We still do. In the marrow of our psychologies. That's what we are still up against when we try to become fair and loving and make the most of our God-given, joined potentials to transform our species and the earth.

The Zimmerman trial fascinates because it is a window on this stubborn, inborn, reflex, obsessive-compulsive tendency to divide the world into I-IT, rather than I-THOU. And that is only partly because it bills itself as a look inside George Zimmerman's soul. It is also because it is, in fact, a window into a segment of the black community's soul. The entire case is almost entirely a creation of reverse discrimination--I-IT, again, with Zimmerman being "IT" this time. The charges that Zimmerman faced were trumped up or, perhaps, completely conjured up because he is not dark enough. Period. And we are going to find out whether not being black (just like not being white enough) is enough to get a man convicted these days.