Sunday, July 14, 2013

Justice in Black and White

The facts of what happened in Florida the night a pistol-packing wannabe-cop named George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager with no criminal record walking back to his Dad’s home after purchasing a candy bar, will never be known.  Trayvon is dead, and his version of events is lost forever.  But the jury’s decision to acquit Zimmerman of all criminal charges almost certainly reflects the fact that none of the jurors were black, and raises the question of whether an African American male can receive justice in a U.S. courtroom.

Trial by a jury of one’s peers is a deeply ingrained value in our country. But blacks and whites have such different experiences regarding the law, the police, the veracity of sworn testimony and the reliability of the criminal justice system that “peerage” (or an equivalence of attitude) is almost impossible between them.  The five white women and one Latina female who sat in judgment on George Zimmerman were probably not consciously biased.  But few non-blacks can fully understand the anger and dismay their verdict must arouse, recalling an era when the official legal doctrine (enunciated in the infamous Dred Scott decision) was that “no black man has any legal rights that a white man must respect,” and a centuries long southern tradition of all white juries acquitting lynch mobs.

Racism remains a virulent reality in our legal system, reflected at every level, from the profiling that occurs in routine traffic stops to differential rates in application of the death penalty.  Young African American men like Trayvon are particularly prone to these disparities, more likely as an age group to be incarcerated than to go to college, more likely to perish (like Trayvon) from a gunshot wound than from any other cause of death.

The majority of white folks in this country will be inclined to accept the outcome of the Zimmerman trial at face value, assuming the state failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.  Criticism of the prosecutor’s evidence and arguments can rightfully be made.  But for blacks, Trayvon will understandably be viewed as one more young man of color, gunned down without cause and without recourse to the law: not the aggressor in this case (as the defense alleged) but a victim, pure and simple.

With Trayvon gone, tragically, no one can say they are wrong.