The Post-Racial America That Was Not: Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, and the American Justice System
In July 2013, in what might be the most significant court case dealing with race in the US since Rodney King (1992) and O.J. Simpson (1994), George Zimmerman, a twenty-eight-year-old self-styled vigilante neighborhood watchman in Florida of mixed-race Hispanic descent, was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter for shooting and killing Trayvon Martin, a seventeen-year-old unarmed black teenager, in February of 2012.
The acquittal led to nationwide protests.
The first black POTUS weighs in
On July 19, President Obama weighed in on the matter of race relations in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict and talked about the context in which many black Americans see this case. Here is the video recording, from the White House’s official YouTube-channel:
Here is a transcript via Huffington Post.
It did not take long, until Obama’s far-right critics lambasted him for speaking out on the case in the context of race relations in America. For instance, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly tried to divert attention from racial profiling in the Zimmerman case by shifting the attention to violent crime within black communities, supposedly caused by “gangsta culture” and “[t]he disintegration of the African-American family.”
So according to O’Reilly, violence against black Americans is black America’s problem. While the issues mentioned are worth discussion elsewhere, and are in fact addressed on a regular basis by organizations within these communities, the case in question has nothing to do with this. To me it appears that O’Reilly is consciously trying to blame the victim here.
The court of public opinion is divided
As a 2012 poll by the Christian Science Monitor highlights, the evaluation of the case among the American public breaks down along color lines, but also age, wealth, and politics.
Racialized clothing and suspicion
Before and during the trial, conservative commentators claimed that a hooded sweatshirt or ‘hoodie’ was suspicious criminal attire and that therefore Trayvon Martin was to blame for being perceived as a thug. This is another example of how race played into the case.
When black Americans wear a hoodie, they are deemed suspicious. When non-black Americans wear it, they are considered perfectly normal. Cenk Uygur, host of progressive talk show ‘The Young Turks’ highlights this racial double standard of clothing with a compilation of American celebrities who all wear hoodies. When non-black celebrities wear a hoodie, it is perceived as a non-threatening sweatshirt. The best part is when he shows images of Fox News hosts Bill O’Reilly and Geraldo Rivera, who blasted hoodies as “thug dress,” wearing hoodies. Of course they, as white and Hispanic males firmly entrenched within the mass media establishment are outside of any racial suspicion. Once again, the boundless hypocrisy of these two Fox News commentators shows. It is one standard for them, and another for ‘those black people.’
Debate over the shooter’s race
Even before the trial, a public debate about whether the shooter George Zimmerman was white, Hispanic, or white Hispanic, unfolded in the media.
Conservative commentators alleged that labeling Zimmerman as white Hispanic served a purpose of perpetuating a narrative of white-on-black crime.
What happened during Trayvon Martin’s last night?
According to police reports, Zimmerman had decided to pursue Trayvon Martin, whom he suspected to be a thug simply for walking down the street in a hoodie in a predominantly white neighborhood while being black. When Zimmerman called the police, they explicitly told him not to pursue the young man. Zimmerman did anyway, after stating “Fucking punks [. . .] These assholes, they always get away.”
When Zimmerman continued to pursue Martin, an altercation arose between the two, likely because Martin noticed he was being tailed by a complete stranger.
From there on, the details are shaky. But the end result is not: George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in the chest and killed him.
Believing the non-black shooter by default
What followed when the police arrived is a scandal unto itself. After some questioning on the scene of the killing, Zimmerman was free to go home and was not arrested for weeks. That the victim was black and the shooter was not might have played a role in why the police believed the shooter’s version of the event.
During the trial, Zimmerman’s defense team tried to paint a picture of Trayvon Martin as a criminal, implying that he basically deserved to die. Never mind the fact that it was Zimmerman who chased after Martin, was armed with a gun, and killed the young man, when he could have just stayed in his car, as he was told to by the police.
Acquitted by a not-so-diverse jury
Last weekend, a jury consisting of six women, five of them white, and one Latina, acquitted George Zimmerman of all charges. As Janell Ross at The Root notes, this is a pattern known to social science researchers.Racially homogenous (white) juries statistically tend to side with non-black defendants when the victim is black.
Members of the jury speak in public after the verdict
After the verdict, Juror B29, the one minority member of the all-female jury gave an interview to ABC News, telling the network that “he [Zimmerman] got away with murder.”
A frightening message to Black America
The effects of the Zimmerman verdict are chilling on Black America. As many commentators have noted  , black Americans, especially male black youth, are under general suspicion. They constantly have to prove to white Americans that they are not the dangerous criminals that the racial stereotype ascribes to them. And as the Trayvon Martin case shows, these racial stereotypes have deadly consequences. Self-styled vigilantes can kill black youth with impunity.
When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, some political writers and cultural critics lauded the dawning of ‘post-racial America,’ a new age wherein the nation would finally transcend its painful history of racist violence and discrimination, especially against black Americans. But as the past five years and the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case in particular highlight, no such thing as ‘post-racial America’ has happened. Race relations may have changed in some respects. But even with a black/mixed-race president and attorney general in office, the realities of daily life still differ along color lines.
Read, listen, and see more:
[I will continue to add more links from time to time.]
“George Zimmerman acquittal leads to protests across US cities.” (Richard Luscombe in Miami, Haroon Siddique and agencies, Guardian, 2013/07/15)
George Zimmerman Trial & Trayvon Martin Case (CBS) – In-depth coverage of the case featuring many articles.
“Is George Zimmerman a ‘white Hispanic’?” (Eric Wempe, Washington Post, 2012/03/28)
“Is George Zimmerman white or Hispanic? That depends.” (Isa Hopkins, Salon.com, 2013/07/16) – On the discussion about Zimmerman’s race.
[Video] “Re-enactment: Retracing Trayvon’s last steps.” (HLNtv.com, 2013/06/20)
“Trayvon Martin: What It’s Like to Be a Problem.” (Melissa Harris-Perry, The Nation, 2012/03/28) – On the parallels between post-Civil War Jim Crow laws and the suspicion of black Americans within public spaces informally designated as white.
[Video] “Zimmerman Acquittal and Trayvon Trial Reaction.” (TheLipTV, YouTube, 2013/07/15) – Legal experts discuss the verdict.
“‘White Hispanic’ not an agenda, a reality.” (Raul Reyes, USATODAY.com, 2012/04/26)
[Podcast] “Getting Real On Race After Zimmerman Verdict.” (NPR barbershop, 2013/07/19) – Michel Martin discusses the Zimmerman verdict with writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael, Fernando Vila, director of programming for Fusion, a joint venture between ABC and Univision, sportswriter and professor of journalism Kevin Blackistone, and Mario Loyola of the National Review magazine and the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
[Podcast] “How President Obama ‘Showed His Brother Card.’” (Mark Memmott, NPR, 2013/07/19) – A Detroit radio host argues that the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case is one of the rare occasions where Obama allows himself to show the part of his identity as a black man in America.
[Podcast] “Obama: ‘Trayvon Martin Could Have Been Me 35 Years Ago’.” (NPR, 2013/07/19) – President Obama’s speech on race relations after the Zimmerman verdict.
“Poll: Trayvon Martin case divides US by race, age, wealth, and politics.” (Christian Science Monitor, 2012/04/06)
“Killing in Self-Defense: You Better Be White.” (Danielle C. Belton, The Root, 2013/07/16) – Statistics show that race plays a significant role in whether claims of justifiable homicide are accepted by courts in the US.
The Race Card Project – A project by NPR host Michele Norris (‘All Things Considered’) that seeks to foster an honest conversation about race in America via old-fashioned postcards.
We Are Not Trayvon Martin – A tumblr blog containing stories of white privilege in America. Mostly white people share stories that show how they experienced certain situations different than many black Americans because of their race.
“White Juries and Black Victims.” (Janell Ross, The Root, 2013/07/2013) – Social science research shows that all-white or nearly all-white juries are less empathetic towards the victim when it is black.