Reflections on the Zimmerman trial

18 Jul

In the wake of George Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict in his shooting of Trayvon Martin, I keep returning to something Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, declared after the verdict:  “There is a difference between the law and what people think is fundamentally justice” (http://news.msn.com/crime-justice/zimmerman-not-guilty-verdict-how-did-it-happen).

Now, it’s a broad reach for Arnwine to refer to all people with this statement. I don’t think “people” in this context includes those who believe that justice is colorblind, and that the law protects everyone equally because it doesn’t acknowledge how racial identity and bias inform a defendant’s perception of “justified use of deadly force” or a juror’s interpretation of “reasonable doubt.” I think those are the people who believe justice has, in fact, been served by the jury’s application of the law.

But the fact is that colorblind really means colormute (Pollock) because we can’t help seeing what we see when we register another person. And as much as some people would like to believe that justice is colorblind, there does seem to be a color-disparate consequence to the law. As Courtland Milloy of the Washington Post reports:

A little less than 3 percent of black-on-white homicides taking place in circumstances similar to the Trayvon Martin case are ruled to be justified, according to a study by John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. But when the races are reversed and whites kill blacks, the percentage of cases that are ruled to be justified climbs to more than 29 percent in non-stand-your-ground states — and almost 36 percent in stand-your-ground states such as Florida, where the law allows people to defend themselves with deadly force, if necessary, if they believe someone is trying to kill or harm them (http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/the-zimmerman-verdict-leaves-blacks-wondering-where-do-we-go-from-here/2013/07/16/0f1cc5f6-ee59-11e2-bed3-b9b6fe264871_story.html).

So while Juror B-37 claimed to Anderson Cooper that “[n]one of the jurors thought race played a role in the case… In fact the question of Zimmerman profiling Martin because he was African-American didn’t even come up in deliberations” (http://sandiegofreepress.org/2013/07/unbelievable-directions-and-instructions-from-judge-sway-jury-in-zimmerman-trial/), there is a substantive body of research that indicates that it is normative for race to play a role in the deliberations of juries, whether they admit it or not.

Nonetheless, what Juror B-37’s interview (http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2013/07/17/juror-b37-we-did-care-about-trayvon-martin/) is supposed to educate us to is that Zimmerman’s jury was uniquely free of racial considerations (i.e. in pursuit of some true justice, disembodied from human perception and experience) and sympathetic to Martin’s family but bound by the higher and again raceblind standards of the law. In her interview with Cooper, this juror holds steadfast to her colorblind adamance when she refers to what Martin “could have” done instead of responding aggressively when Zimmerman confronted him aggressively. As she speaks, what I hear is how she would have responded, which is inextricably tied up in who she is, including her sex, race, age, upbringing, current social status and experiences with strangers who resemble Zimmerman. This is not to deny that Martin did indeed have options: it’s to say that our habits, our available choices and our instincts are color-informed, rather than colorblind, just as they are informed by other aspects of our identity and experiences, and the similarities and differences we see between ourselves and The Other in a charged situation.

If anything, the fact that race “didn’t even come up in deliberations” is deeply disturbing to me because if we don’t name race, we can’t admit to, confront and think intentionally about our biases. And we end up thinking as “many” do that “this case should never have been about race. It would be unfair to make George Zimmerman pay for generations of racial inequalities, no matter how real or painful those troubles may be” (http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/14/justice/zimmerman-race-factor). Whoa, now. Let’s parse this position:

At the same time that this unnamed “many” believe that racial inequality is a reality in the processes and outcomes of our judicial system, they insist there’s no relevance or bearing on the Zimmerman trial. Because their leaping assumption is that acknowledging discrimination in the very forum where it matters would be making an individual “pay” for the sum total of racial inequalities since the dawn of time.

Really?

Isn’t there a middle ground between automatic guilty verdicts just because you’re white and more-or-less automatic not guilty verdicts just because you’re white? Doesn’t there have to be if we’re going to talk about justice? It’s stunning to me that we as a society can recognize a historic, persistent and devastatingly impactful bias and refuse to do anything about it. Because as long as we refuse to connect the specific tree in front of us with the forest in which it stands, aren’t we just giving racial injustice a hall pass?

No, Zimmerman should not have been made to “pay for generations of racial inequalities.” Neither should we pretend that race has nothing to do with Martin’s death, the road to prosecuting Zimmerman, the verdict itself and the aftermath of that decision. Let’s dispense with these red herring extremes and find our way back to our shared responsibility: given documented “generations of racial inequalities,” interrogating what we do in the name of justice that enables and perpetuates inequity in our legal systems. (For example, trying to repress the explicit mention of race: http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/06/21/19076806-zimmerman-judge-prosecutors-can-use-profiled-at-trial?lite) when it’s a fact in every trial and a factor in how human beings perceive each other.) It’s not enough to shake our heads as if racial inequality mysteriously and magically happens to us, and then proceed as we always have. As the saying goes, we need to accept that the legal system we’ve created is perfectly designed to get the results it gets. And if those results include racial inequality, then there’s a flaw that we created and can address. Maybe we won’t ever achieve perfect equality for all in our legal system, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it. We shouldn’t settle for law that is so different from the justice we all deserve.

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