Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Bigger Picture in the Zimmerman Verdict

I have read a handful of articles and watched a couple of videos recently that argue passionately for George Zimmerman’s innocence. These articles generally make two points: First, that Zimmerman certainly had no hatred toward African-Americans. He grew up with African-Americans, befriended African-Americans, and even advocated for African-Americans in difficult situations. Second, that Trayvon Martin was dangerous. Martin had a history of drugs and violence, knew Mixed Martial Arts, and even physically assaulted Zimmerman. Taken together, these arguments conclude that Zimmerman did not kill Martin because he was a racist but because Martin was threatening his life, which presumably justifies the verdict that declared Zimmerman “not guilty”. Although there is a lot of truth in what these articles are saying, they entirely miss the bigger picture.   

For those of you who are defending Zimmerman, I’d invite you to take a couple of minutes to read this post and consider what’s going on here from another perspective. But first, I want to affirm a part of what you are doing. One thing that I appreciate about the recent flurry of articles defending Zimmerman is that they seem to be concerned for Zimmerman’s well-being. People who go on trial – especially highly publicized trials – are socially vulnerable for the rest of their lives. Zimmerman will never be able to escape the shadow that these events have cast over his life, and he at least deserves to have his story told in a fair light.

That being said, I must point out that all of these arguments all focus on the exchange between Zimmerman and Martin that occurred after Zimmerman made the decision to pursue Martin. To move the focus there is to preemptively frame the debate in Zimmerman’s favor. Had this been a different situation, where Martin sprang out of the woods and started viciously attacking Zimmerman, who happened to have a gun and decided to use it in self-defense, then there would be no debate, no outrage from the black community. But that’s not what happened. Remember, the entire encounter began with racial profiling. Of course, a number of white people do not believe that Zimmerman was racially profiling Martin. After all, the evidence suggests that he cared deeply for African-American people, that he wasn’t a racist, right? Well, that depends on what you mean by racism, which is why I find it useful to distinguish between hard racism and soft racism. [1]

Hard racism is the explicit and intentional persecution of people who happen to have a different skin color. Members of the KKK or Neo-Nazis, or people who reject or insult others on the basis of their ethnicity, are all hard racists. Fortunately, there aren’t a lot of hard racists lurking around in the United States anymore. Through reforming our laws, educating our children, and checking our attitudes, we have made hard racism socially unacceptable, and reduced it to the margins. Is hard racism over? Well, it hasn’t been completely eradicated, but it no longer enjoys the support and status of dominant society. [2] It certainly has no place in this current trial. I firmly believe that George Zimmerman was not a hard racist.

But there is also soft racism, the kind of racism which is not hateful in nature but which nevertheless makes instinctive judgments about people on the basis of their race. Almost all of us are soft racists to one extent or another. Generally, soft racism begins with by distrusting another person –the group of African-American teenage boys who are walking down the street, the Latino who is adamantly denying that he did something wrong, the Arab-American who is getting on a plane flight, etc. This distrust or suspicion then influences our behavior. White people go the other direction to avoid black crowds, Latinos are tuned out while they try telling their stories, Arab-Americans are searched more thoroughly by security, and all of these interactions become emotionally-charged. Now often times it ends there and no further injustice occurs, but these little discriminations have a tendency to escalate and to accumulate, to take root in people’s identities and in social structures. So, for example, wealthy people – both black and white [3] – tend to avoid African-American boys so often that they pull their kids out of black schools, move out of black neighborhoods, and create ghettos that are devoid of funding, businesses, and strong education programs. The discrimination against Latinos causes them to lose more arguments with business managers and police officers, which leads to higher criminal records, insurance rates, and employment problems. People of Arab origin both here and around the world face tremendous discrimination, to the point that we have imprisoned some of them without trial at places like Guantanamo and elsewhere. In a worst case scenario, this kind of “soft racism” could even kill someone, which is, in fact, exactly what happened to Trayvon Martin. [4]

One final point about soft racism before I talk about the trial: it is impossible to prove that it has occurred. Although you can prove that an action was committed (e.g. an Arab person was frisked by a security guard or a black person was interrogated by a police officer), you can never prove why it was committed. And that is what makes it so frustrating. People of color keep coming up against discriminations that white people – on the whole – won’t acknowledge. This makes it impossible for people of color to address the social evils that flow from those discriminations or legally defend themselves against discrimination. This is why the Zimmerman trial is so important.

Now, let me reiterate that Zimmerman is not a hard racist, as far as I can tell. I don’t believe that he had an agenda to hurt a black person on the night that he shot Martin. This, however, does not acquit him of soft racism. After all, let’s honestly ask, “Why did he follow Martin in the first place?” Here was a young man who was by himself, unarmed, and not threatening anyone. Without knowing anything about him, Zimmerman decided he was a threat, called the police, and pursued him against their recommendation while armed with a gun. Was this soft racism? Some of you are saying, “Well you can’t know for sure,” or “You can’t prove it,” and you’re right. That’s exactly the problem! You can never prove that soft racism has occurred. But indulge me in this thought experiment: Do you honestly believe that if a short white girl who was wearing the exact same clothing and performing the exact same behavior, Zimmerman would have followed her with a gun in hand? I don’t. If that’s the case, then Trayvon was discriminated against on the basis of his race, and that discrimination was the first event in a series of events that led to his death. Now, in the rest of that series of events, did Martin contribute in any way to the events that led to his death? Maybe. Perhaps the only thing that Zimmerman did wrong was to racially profile Martin in the first place [5], but even if so, that was wrong and it got someone killed. So, for people who have to deal with soft racism, individually and social, on a regular basis, what does this verdict mean?  The US government is officially declaring that it can offer no protection to people of color from soft racism, even if it kills them. How terrifying and disempowering!

Perhaps you think that I’m making too much of this. Perhaps you believe that a trial is not supposed to be a national spectacle but only an assessment of one individual’s guilt or innocence, and that the only relevant question is whether George Zimmerman committed murder or not. I disagree. Every trial serves the dual function of judging individual cases and making a public statement about justice. This is why Supreme Court cases like Roe v. Wade or Brown v. Board of Education are so important. They are not just trying to help a handful of individuals work through a really complicated situation; they are making a statement about justice and setting a legal precedent for how it will be pursued in our country. Thus, a public, legal action must be taken to respond adequately to this event. The call for a “fair verdict” in the Zimmerman case is not ultimately a call for revenge but for repentance; it’s a call for the public acknowledgment that soft racism is wrong and that we will do something about it.

But maybe Zimmerman isn’t the proper scapegoat for this necessary public repentance. Perhaps Zimmerman was rightfully declared innocent on the basis of Florida’s “Stand your ground law,” but this only means that Florida’s laws are themselves guilty of injustice. Because soft racism goes completely unregulated, laws like “Stand your ground” give racism a space in which it can flourish. People can invoke the power to kill from “Stand your ground,” and protect themselves under the invisibility of motivation. This is why black leaders here in Indianapolis and across the country are responding to the verdict by demanding the state governments to consider repealing their own versions of “Stand your ground” laws. [6] For if Zimmerman didn’t do anything illegal, then the law must be changed. After all, if there are no legal consequences for Martin’s death, that represents the United States’ tacit approval of soft racism. And that’s the bigger picture here. This is not just a question of whether one man was truly defending himself or not; it’s a question of whether those unnamed racial forces which perpetuate so much injustice in our society, will be publicly named and defeated.

End Notes

[1] I have found this distinction between "soft racism" and "hard racism" to be very helpful. For an excellent article, see That being said, I realize that the boundary between the two types of racism probably breaks down, as they are interconnected at least to some extent. Nevertheless, I think it is a valuable heuristic distinction to make, especially considering how ambiguous and loaded the term "racism" is.

[2] However, hard racists can still do a lot of damage from the margins. Almost every person of color that I know has had at least one negative encounter with a reactionary hard racist, and those traumatic experiences tend to stick with people for the rest of their lives. So, even though we have won the war, let’s not stop fighting the battles on hard racism.

[3] Yes, you can be a soft racist against your own “race.” Perhaps this is the most common way to be racist.

[4] See the movie Crash for a beautiful demonstration of the way soft racism can escalate, and what kind of soul-searching must be done for there to be any redemption.

[5] I do not personally believe that this was the only thing that Zimmerman did wrong, but even if it was, the argument would stand.


Anotherday said...

This is an awesome post. You, as always, can more eloquently express your viewpoint on these issues than I ever will. This is very much how I feel about the whole thing. A few things I'd like to comment on and add.

1. It was my understanding the "stand your ground law" had no influence in this case. It was brought up initially but Zimmerman plead self defense and waived his right to the stand your ground law. The law itself is still pretty controversial and certainly warrants further exploration.

2. I'd like to add another point to this which I also think people are overlooking. I didn't take a lot of things away from my citizenship class in 9th grade, but I will never forget the idea of a coin relationship between rights and responsibilities.

I am an advocate for the right of American citizens to lawfully bear arms. I am a gun owner with intent to obtain my license to conceal. I appreciate the freedom in this country to protect myself and my family in the event of a break in or car jacking or a gunman shooting at random in a shopping mall/school/cinema. But with that I also feel the weight of a laden responsibility. A responsibility to know how to shoot a gun safely if I choose to own it. The responsibility to keep it in a locked place when not in use, and to keep it from ending up in the hands of dangerous people.

That being said, if you carry a concealed weapon and are properly trained on how to use it, then you know you already have the upper hand. So you see a suspicious person that is not aware of you, you call the police, burdened with the responsibility of carrying that gun you better wait for the proper authorities to come and take care of the situation. Just because you own and carry a gun, does not make you authorized to follow someone you think is up to no good. Its not a superman cape, it doesn't make it ok to walk into a potentially dangerous situation if it could be avoided.

End rant. I think I'm done...

Brian Bither said...

Thanks for your "rant." I liked it. I really your "superman cape" metaphor really gets to the heart of the issue, and I'm glad up you brought up the "Stand Your Ground" point, because I failed to address that.

While it's true that the law itself was not cited to defend Zimmerman, the language of the law was used to defend him. This is worth thinking about. Just like court trials, laws have a dual function: not only do they regulate our behavior, but they also positively encourage us to think and act in certain ways; they define the boundaries and ideals of good citizenship.

Just think of the phrase "Stand Your Ground" itself: it uses a phrase that encourages people to think of themselves as average citizens who rise to the ranks of heroes in the face of bullies. When you narrate it this way, then people like Zimmerman don't see themselves as the aggressor but as the citizen-hero who is responding to the bully lurking around in his neighborhood. Thus, what's so disturbing about the case is not that Zimmerman acted like a RACIST but that he acted like a PATRIOT. We have no problem punishing racists; we aren't sure what to do with well-intentioned people who do horrible things that have racial implications. After all, Zimmerman behaved exactly as we teach people (and specifically men) to behave in those situations: he didn't wait around for someone else to resolve the situation but took "responsibility" for the situation and acted. After all, the only thing needed for evil to succeed is for good "men" to do nothing, right? Isn't this exactly what we emulate in our military ceremonies, in our action movies, and in the very language of our laws?

If lawmakers refuse to change the content of "Stand your ground," they should at least changed the title of it to something like the "Absolute Last Resort" law. Even that makes me uncomfortable, but it's a step in the right direction. A wonderful (and relatively short) book that I find really helpful for these kinds of issues is "What Would You Do If a Violent Person Threatened a Love One?" by John Howard Yoder.

Amy said...

Nicely done. Did you read Obama's response to the trial? It's eloquent and poignant, and it made me so glad that he is our president during this public moment. Here's a link:

Brian Bither said...

Thanks, Amy. I had not read that until you shared the link. What a gracious and beautiful response! I hope people really take the time to consider what he is saying.