Monday, July 15, 2013

Race and Reasonable Doubt: Notes from the Sanford Florida Verdict

The official media narrative is in.  The acquittal of wanna-bee neighborhood guardian George Zimmerman for the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin reflects the impenetrable wall that the law and the trial judge set up between the narrow legal questions of culpability and the broad social issues that had animated passions in the case: gun carrying in public and racial profiling.  But do not buy this part of the narrative.  While the legal issues may have been narrow and the evidence carefully filtered by the judge, whether consciously or not, race was central to the jury's considerations in Sanford this past weekend.

George Zimmerman admitted he fired his gun into the center of Trayvon Martin's body, from which a jury could and normally would infer that he intended to kill Martin.  Normally that would be enough to establish 2nd degree murder.  Here however Zimmerman claimed "self defense."  Even though Zimmerman never took the stand, the jurors had to consider his story presented in police reports and forensic evidence.  The jury had to consider whether Zimmerman reasonably feared that he would die or suffer grievous bodily harm if he did not use lethal force.  Does an adult with a gun in his pocket have a reasonable fear that someone who has punched him and is now straddling him and pounding his head on the pavement is going to cause his death or at least grave bodily harm?  That is where age, gender, and race do their work.

Imagine that Trayvon was a 17 year old female, a 54 year old white male, or even a 17 year old white male.  In all of those cases the prosecutors would have had an easier job convincing the jury that Zimmerman acted recklessly in firing his gun.  It is true that teenage males are more associated with aggression, anger, and violence in our culture than either females or older males; but young black men are endowed with a legendary level of anger by our cultural imaginary (and one typically associated with danger to white people).  In scores of popular cultural references young black men are depicted as exploding into legal violence with little provocation or warning.  In its own way this cultural construction reflects an acknowledgement of the historical wrongs done against African Americans and the resentments which this treatment would give rise to.   It is this cultural imaginary that was so successfully invoked by "black power" political leaders of the 1960s and 1970s from Huey Newton to Jesse Jackson Sr. and Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and which candidate Barack Obama had worked so hard to distance himself from with his calm demeanor, starched shirts, and studied refusal to give voice to racial grievance.

It is true that the defense was not able to introduce potentially prejudicial evidence about Trayvon Martin's past, including that he had used marijuana and that he had been involved in some  minor fights at school.  But in convincing the jury that George Zimmerman was reasonable in fearing for his life, the defense had a wind at its back that would not have been there had Trayvon been female or white.  Think about Zimmerman's story again.--- He was on his way back to his car in the gated community.  Suddenly, out of the dark, Trayvon attacks him, punching him to the ground, straddling him, pounding his head into the pavement with a vicious force.--- Now the jury knew that Trayvon had gone to the store to get candy and that he was talking to a friend on his cell phone just before the incident; so they had no immediate context which could explain why he might suddenly act with violence.  All they had was his race and the racialized cultural narratives about anger and violence that are part of the American legacy of racist violence.  For reasonable doubt, that may have been all they needed.

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