Zimmerman Trial: Race Verdict Already In

George Zimmerman (Pool/Getty Images)
George Zimmerman (Pool/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Let me be clear. I hope George Zimmerman is convicted of murder. I hope so because I think he decided Trayvon Martin was "up to no good" mostly because the Skittle-toting 17-year-old was black, because I think that's atrocious, because he's unapologetic and his choice to take an innocent kid's life caused so many people to suffer.


Like many Americans, I want the man who caused that pain to suffer, too.

Plus, I'd like it if Zimmerman's fate could send a message to those people who unfairly associate black men and boys with crime and violence and act on it: "You don't get to do this. " And I'd also like send a message to those black men and boys themselves: "If someone does this to you, they'll pay."

But that's not going to happen, no matter what the verdict. Because, despite the fact that race is the "elephant in the room," that it "permeates the case" and that we all agree the facts call for a "dialogue in this nation about racial matters," none of that is actually at issue in the courtroom drama that's dominated all the networks, that has armchair attorneys tweeting like their lives depend on it and that's already the source of speculation about riots inspired by perceived injustice.

This case and the dialogue surrounding it have reminded us of how ubiquitous racism is. They've reminded us how harmful (deadly, even) it remains. But, contrary to popular belief, those ugly realities aren't actually on trial.

Instead, the jury will be asked to consider things like: who was on top when and voice analysis and visibility and hand positioning and what's a "reasonable" doubt. No one will be asked about whether we want to live in a world where, if you're black, a hoodie makes you threatening, whether a strange man gets to stalk you because of that and how we should punish one who refuses to listen to a police dispatcher and keep his bigotry confined to his car.

But you wouldn't know that from all the chatter. To be clear about what this trial is about versus what it feels like it's about — and to reserve our outrage for the many injustices that take place every day outside the Florida courtroom — it's worth distinguishing the racial issues stirred up by this story from the ones the jury will actually decide.


So, I asked Kevin Woodson, assistant professor of law at Drexel University's Earle Mack School of Law, to tackle some of the common narratives that are surfacing about race and justice and explain why they confuse what's at stake.

How it feels: Zimmerman targeted Trayvon because Trayvon was black. If he walks, it means you can racially profile and get away with murder.


The legal reality: Even if Zimmerman was completely wrong in racially profiling Trayvon, that wouldn't render a self-defense claim invalid, Woodson says, because Florida law lets an aggressor — even one with a despicable motivation — use the defense under certain circumstances. He adds that there's really only one main question that will be before the jury: whether, at the moment Zimmerman pulled the trigger, he reasonably believed he needed to do so to protect himself from death or imminent bodily harm. It's narrow, it's specific and it doesn't allow for the consideration of race.

How it feels: You can't argue that you killed an unarmed teen in self-defense when you're the adult, and you started it. If Zimmerman walks, it means there are different legal standards for black and white Americans. 


The legal reality: "Broadly speaking, the idea is that you're only supposed to respond with the level of force necessary — even if you initiated a fight," says Woodson. But again, under Florida's self-defense statute, he explains, just because you started a confrontation (even for a wrongheaded, terrible reason), doesn't mean you have to let the other person kill you. And you can use deadly force to stop them. That's at odds with many people's sense of fairness, but Woodson says he's not aware of any indication that the law was written to allow white people to kill black people, as some have suggested. Nor does it have a racially charged reputation like the "Stand your ground" immunity that dominated early discussions about the defense but wasn't ultimately sought by the Zimmerman's team.

How it feels: The defense put Trayvon's character on trial because he was black. If Zimmerman isn't indicted, it will be because the attorneys unethically appealed to the racial stereotypes held by jurors.


The legal reality: "It's surprising to me how much a lot of the bloggers and pundits have reacted to the defense's attempt to defend their client," says Woodson, explaining, "Zimmerman's freedom rests on him being able to persuade the jury that he was being attacked when he pulled the trigger, and evidence that makes that more likely is very important to his case." The defense team, which he says is bound by the rules governing character evidence when they discuss the slain teen's history, has a legitimate interest in attempting establishing that Trayvon initiated the physical confrontation or got the best of Zimmerman, using whatever information they possibly can.

So, six people are going to decide whether Zimmerman violated specific laws and whether he meets the legal requirements for a specific defense. They won't — and in fact, they can't — issue a mandate on racial justice.  


Their decision can't touch larger issues like racial profiling by law enforcement, unfair application of stop-and-frisk policies, structural inequality of any kind or the bigotry and ignorance that plague so many of our fellow citizens and make being black in this country harder and more dangerous. No one's waiting for a verdict to be outraged about any of that. So, does the entire narrative surrounding the murder trial reflect well-known injustices? Absolutely. But will the jury's decision on the narrow issue it's asked to decide do the same? Not so much.

Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.

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