Why the Zimmerman Jury Failed Us

Straight Up: The racism that resides at America's core has led to the continual dehumanization of blacks.

A sign for Trayvon Martin in the lawn of the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
A sign for Trayvon Martin in the lawn of the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

(The Root) — America is racist at its core. I used to doubt this simplistic claim. Today I cannot. The murder of Trayvon Martin demands total, simple, honesty. A jury in Florida failed us. We have not seen a moral failure this grave since a similarly all-white jury in Simi Valley, Calif., in 1992 acquitted the four LAPD officers who beat Rodney King.

Writing in the same year as that ill-fated verdict, the distinguished civil rights lawyer Derrick Bell declared that “racism is an integral, permanent and indestructible component of this society.” In most circumstances, I treat this declaration as a foil: a claim to be slowly picked apart as, at best, too easy and, at worst, deeply unfair and wrong. Not today.

The most elemental facts of this case will never change. A teenager went out to buy Skittles and iced tea. At some point, he was confronted by a man with a gun who killed him. There is no universe I understand where this can be declared a noncriminal act. Not in a sane, just and racism-free universe.

There is only one universe in which such a judgment can happen. It is the same universe in which jurors can watch slow-motion video of four armed police officers beating a man and conclude that the man being beaten dictated everything that happened. 

Two features of this universe loom large. First, it requires immersion in a culture of contempt, derision and at bottom, profound dehumanization of African Americans, particularly black men. You have to be well-prepared to believe the very worst about black people in order to reach such a conclusion. In particular, you have to proceed as if that person constituted a different, lesser former of humanity. Without that deep-rooted bias in the American cultural fabric, we would find that people would readily bring a powerful sense of basic shared human insight and empathy to the Trayvon-Zimmerman encounter.  

Second, it requires that the panel judging whether or not a crime has taken place include not a single member of the victims’ racial background group. It really doesn’t work without that condition. The odds that anyone in the jury room openly rejected the arguments of “reasonable racism” — i.e., that enough of these people are criminals that it is basically OK to treat them all as suspects till they prove otherwise — went from low to near absolute zero when a singularly nondiverse jury was empaneled, as was true in Simi Valley. As a result, there was almost certainly nobody there who would say during the deliberations: “No, it is not OK to view me, a law-abiding black person, as criminal.  It is not OK to ask me, in my own neighborhood, if I ‘belong,’ ‘what I’m doing’ or ‘where am I going.’ ” And it certainly is not OK to do so armed with a gun and in a presumably threatening manner. This is why diverse juries are critical to achieving justice in a case like Zimmerman’s. 

But that is not the jury that was empaneled. In fact, the defense was wisely strategic in opting for a six-person jury; this decreased even further the odds that the panel would include someone likely to raise such concerns.

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