Trayvon Martin and the scarcity of black birders
One of the most pervasive items in the national news over the last week or so has been that of the killing of 17 year old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, by trigger-happy neighborhood guard watchman George Zimmerman while Martin was returning to the nearby home of a relative from a late night convenience store run. The essentials of the story, that Zimmerman was something of an overzealous presence in the community, that he had called 911 to report Martin’s “suspicious” presence, and that he pursued Martin despite being told by the dispatcher not to do so, are fairly well established elsewhere. Heck, anywhere. Also clear, the seeming inanity of the Florida law that may well allow Zimmerman to walk. It is not my intention to dwell too much on this, except to point out that, in the cold light of day, the only crime of which Martin was guilty seemed to be the unfortunately capital one of being black and in public after dark. Even though this has become, oddly, a point of contention in some arenas of our political discourse, these are, as they say, the facts, ma’am.
This story has resonated across much of the nation to the extent that is has prodded, once again, the still festering and clumsily hidden open sore that is racism in American society. We are so, so bad at talking about the very real issues that surround our ugly past on this topic that it’s truly amazing to me, and probably anyone else with any sort of historical context, that we function as well as we do. Of course, let me qualify this statement by saying that I can only approach this topic from my perspective, that of a incredibly fortunate middle-class white male, quite possibly the least put-upon demographic in the nation, and likely the world. In that sense, and even though I try to be conscious of inequality and guiltily aware of my own latent biases, it has been incredibly eye-opening to read some of the perspectives that this tragedy has generated among black journalists and writers about being black in America.
Some of the most devastating words came from Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart, who has written extensively and deeply on the Martin shooting, and who, in a recent column, shared his own mother’s words to him when he moved from posh suburbs to the city of Newark.
“Don’t run in public.” Lest someone think you’re suspicious.
“Don’t run while carrying anything in your hands.” Lest someone think you stole something.
“Don’t talk back to the police.” Lest you give them a reason to take you to jail or worse
I don’t know, but those words just about broke me. I, a middle-class white kid, would never have been accused of any of this. It would never have crossed the minds of my parents to need to say such things. And here I am, so casually unaware of the realities confronting those with which I share a conversation, a workplace, a community.
So, what does this have to do with birding? It has been the goal of many in the birding community to reach out to minority communities to diversify what is a nearly exclusively white pastime. I think we’d all agree that these efforts are an unqualified good thing. Not only are birds a remarkable window into the natural world, but more people caring about birds can be nothing but good for the birds themselves. The question of why minority groups aren’t generally into birding is a tough one to get around on, though. Sharon Stiteler instigated that conversation at 10,000 Birds some time ago and it drew some interesting comments. J. Drew Lanham also offered some fascinating insights from the perspective of a black birder that should be required reading to anyone who looks with concern at our homogeneity. For a while I thought that the primary barrier to inclusion of more black and brown faces in birding had more to do with socioeconomic issues than racial ones. After all, it costs a little bit of money to outfit yourself for the field, to get a decent field guide, to pay for the gas to get to where the birds are. These are hurdles that people of limited means, which disproportionally consist of African-American and Hispanic folks, often can’t overcome. And that’s almost certainly part of it, but in the light of the Trayvon Martin shooting I’m not longer convinced that that’s the primary reason we don’t see more black birders. I don’t think it’s necessarily anything inherent with birding, or nature study more generally, that needs to be resolved to attract diversity. I’m starting to see that it’s bigger than that.
Just about every birder that has been around long enough has had more than a few run-ins with the law. I don’t mean that in a bad way, just that if you spend enough time driving slowly down backroads or hanging around neighborhoods with binoculars around your neck, you’re going to attract attention either from law-enforcement or from residents with law enforcement on speed-dial. I get approached by cops a couple of times a year. The last, the Wake County sheriff’s deputy in question followed me for some time before turning on his lights and finally pulling up next to me and hassling me about what birds I was seeing with pointed and direct questions. But it’s not just the law, my dad once took a wrong turn down a driveway while birding and ended up with a gun pointed at him. As a young, often scruffy-looking, male, I’m hesitant to bird alone anywhere where there might be children playing lest I attract the ire of overprotective moms who think I’m some sort of sexual predator. I’m not saying I know what it’s like to regularly be the cause of unwanted attention by unwanted parties, but nearly all of us have stories like this. And those birding friends that I have that are darker, even though they’re of south Asian descent, have more of those stories. It’s a pain to have to take that into consideration when I’m birding.
Why is this important? Because studies have shown that black individuals, particularly black men, are more likely to be stopped by police officers than whites. It happens everywhere. Think again about Trayvon Martin, and how he was singled out by Zimmerman as “suspicious” simply because he was a black man in a majority white neighborhood. Think again about how a black man in a largely white neighborhood or a urban or suburban park with binoculars might have been perceived. Imagine you’re driving the residential neighborhoods of Cape Coral looking for those Burrowing Owls, or following up on a feeder twitch in a gated community and it’s easy to see how this is a problem.
Exactly how often would this have to happen to put you off birding for good, or to think this is a hobby not worth pursuing? It’s these sorts of interactions that make me think that those black birders that persist, and excel, in the hobby are made of much stronger stuff than I am. The thought that any birding outing could be brought to an end by a “suspicious” cop or any trigger-happy vigilante wannabe is disturbing. My interactions detailed above are often minor inconveniences, anything more than that – simply for the crime of birding while black – is truly beyond my comprehension. And yet, a real concern.
So why, in a world where black Americans are already unduly hassled by unfair stereotypes, gun-toting private citizens, and unscrupulous police, would they want to take on a hobby where those sorts of run-ins are more likely to happen? Why should this be surprising to us? Of course, each of us has to keep fighting the good fight, but it says something not very appealing about our society that something as innocuous, as harmless, as downright geeky as birdwatching is too often beyond the reach of our black friends because of the ugly beliefs of a surprising percentage of our population that are all too easy for the rest of us to ignore because we are privileged enough to be able to ignore it.
We birders are, with very few exceptions, a welcoming lot. It is, perhaps, one of the few avocations that allows individuals with many perspectives – political, religious, and all the other big ones we argue about in our real lives – to come together and enjoy birds and the outdoors. To remove ourselves, just for a moment, from the ugly realities of the world and concentrate instead on a world of field marks and vocalizations. But sometimes those realities, though invisible to many of us, offer significant issues for those with whom we’d otherwise love to share this passion.
And that’s not just bad for birds, it’s bad for everybody.