What role did race play?
Intellectually, I understand why the George Zimmerman jury reached its "not guilty” verdict in the killing of Trayvon Martin. In fact, it’s the only plausible verdict given the state of the law in Florida on self-defense. The jurors were told by the judge that Zimmerman was allowed to use deadly force if he merely thought he faced death or bodily harm. If there were any reasonable doubt on whether the defendant was justified in using deadly force, then he had to be acquitted. Doubt, they were further instructed, could arise from conflicting evidence. So, given the burden of proof on the prosecution to prove that self-defense was not in play, the jury followed the instructions given by the judge.
As predictable as the verdict was, I can’t help but wonder about what role race played in the case. What if the shooter was a militant armed black man with a statement of race-based suspicion who then followed a white teenager talking on a cell phone and ultimately killed the boy in his mostly black neighborhood? Suppose the white youth initially tried to get away, and then turned to stand his ground. Would the perception of society alter as to whom was deemed to be the aggressor? Would the black neighborhood watch man be believed when he said the white kid knocked him down and pounded his head on the sidewalk?
Would Mr. Zimmerman have noticed the youth if he was a casually dressed white teenager? Referring to him as one of those” punks” who always get away” before he even caught up to him, wasn’t Mr. Zimmerman acting on a preconceived mindset that paints young black men as potential criminals? A black hoodie was equated with a “black soul” full of evil and therefore it was reasonable to have a fear of him hurting a white man.
The police department did a slapdash “investigation”. Initially, they did not canvass the complex, even to see if a youngster was missing from one of the apartments, let alone to gather evidence. Mr. Martin spent his night in a morgue while Mr. Zimmerman went home to sleep. This sloppy investigation was then used as “proof” that the police concluded the defendant acted in self-defense.
The sad truth of this trial was that despite the protestations to the contrary, it really was all about race. Americans who are Caucasian cannot understand why the verdict reinforces the perception that a black life is not worth the same as one of a white person. Stereotypes are so firmly lodged in many people’s perceptions that they can’t see how the attitude affects their judgement. Verdicts like this one then reinforce social stereotypes so the cycle will begin again.
Ironically, during my years of working in the inner city, black males were told not to run in public because it caused suspicion, i.e. they were running from a scene of a crime. According to Zimmerman, it was the slow walk of Mr. Martin that caught his attention. I am so happy that I’m not a black parent who has to instruct my son as to how to walk on a street. Would I have to tell him never to become indignant and stand his ground because I wouldn’t want him dead? This sounds like I’d have to tell him to be “steppin-fetchit” even if he’s only eating skittles and juice. God help us that this is still an issue!