On July 13, 2013, after sixteen hours of deliberation over the course of two days, the six-person jury in the criminal prosecution of George Zimmerman acquitted him of all charges in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. On the last night of his life, while walking back from 7/11 after purchasing an Arizona iced tea and a bag of skittles, Martin was followed and then confronted by Zimmerman, who suspected Martin to be a neighborhood burglar. After a brief altercation, Zimmerman shot and killed Martin.
In the weeks following the jury’s verdict, outrage spread across the nation. Protests and rallies demanding “justice for Trayvon” took place in many cities across the US, organized mostly by civil rights groups. In many communities across the country, and especially African-American communities, frustration, anger, and grief characterized the feelings of those rallying, who felt that in this day and age the unjust killing of a black teen should not go unpunished.
While the desire for justice in the wake of the jury’s verdict certainly resonates among many of us, it is important to consider the facts of the case. The evidence presented by the prosecution had a very slim chance of convincing the jury to ignore Zimmerman’s self-defense claim, and sentencing him for second-degree murder. Florida is one of thirty-three states which have Stand Your Ground laws, which give individuals the right to use deadly force to defend themselves without any requirement to evade or retreat from a dangerous situation. No matter how controversial a Stand Your Ground case may be, this law was ultimately the roadblock that prevented the jury from convicting Zimmerman even of the lesser charge of manslaughter.
However, it is not the physical evidence of this case that needs to be addressed. A factor that was always on the minds of the prosecutors, defendants, jurors, and viewers throughout this case, but could never be discussed in the courthouse, was that of race. Before the case began, the judge made it clear that statements about race would be sharply limited, and the term “racial profiling” was not allowed at all.
In a case regarding the death of an African American teenager at the hands of a White-Latino man, where the six-person jury was comprised of five white women and one African American-Latina woman, in a country that has one of the longest histories of racial oppression, the judge’s determination to not consider race was unfathomable.
Here at CC, we would most likely consider ourselves above ignorant bigots and racists. We would most likely scoff at the idea that no matter how educated or traveled or experienced we might be, we are still racist.
But the fact is, we are all racist regardless of our best intentions.
Accepting and understanding this notion can be extremely helpful in understanding tragic events that deal with race, such as the death of Trayvon Martin.
Friedrich Nietzsche once stated that “there is no immaculate perception,” perfectly capturing how cognitive schemas, or thought structures, influence what we notice and how the things we notice get interpreted. Michelle Alexander applies this notion to the concept of race and race relations in her book “The New Jim Crow,” which accurately and frighteningly depicts a new system of laws and policies that actively suppress African-Americans by pushing them toward the US criminal justice system, thus keeping them marginalized in society through a constructed racial caste.
Within her book, Alexander discusses the psychology behind racism, stating, “decades of cognitive bias research demonstrates that both unconscious and conscious biases lead to discriminatory actions, even when an individual does not want to discriminate… In other words, the fact that you may honestly believe that you are not biased against African Americans, and that you may even have black friends or relatives, does not mean that you are free from unconscious bias” (Alexander, 107).
The recognition of this unconscious-yet-universal bias is vital as we come of age in a society that is still dealing with prevalent racism. This unconscious bias is not something to be ashamed of, but is something that we can use to our advantage to see the world around us in a more transparent way.
Once we come to terms with this bias, we can start to analyze how it is dealt with in our society’s institutions, such as the criminal justice system. The judge in the Trayvon Martin case, who forbade the topic of race from being factored into the prosecution’s argument, was not the first judge in our justice system to have purposefully overlooked the effects of race when dealing with criminal cases.
This practice has been on the rise since Ronald Reagan’s re-declaration of the War on Drugs. Through the formation of new and extremely disproportionate policies regarding possession, manufacturing, and distribution of drugs, as well as mandatory minimum sentences for these crimes, the US government created a new means to suppress African-Americans. Our justice system carried out these measures to create a new racial caste of African-Americans imprisoned, on probation, or on parole. Alexander presents the statistics to back up this cold reality, stating that, “African American youth account for 16 percent of all youth, 28 percent of all juvenile arrests, 35 percent of the youth waived to adult criminal court, and 58 percent of youth admitted to state adult prison” (Alexander, 118).
The major reason for these disparities is unconscious and conscious racial biases infecting judicial decision-making. Once we understand that our biases affect our own decision-making, then we will truly be able to address the racist practices and policies imbedded in our society that continue to oppress African-Americans.