It’s been almost a week since the not-guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. And it’s taken me almost that long to gather my thoughts and sort through my feelings to write about it.
The facts of the matter are hard to comprehend: a man with a history of violence was allowed to carry a concealed weapon, and, defying police orders, stalked an unarmed child, ascribing motive and intent to him on the basis of nothing more than his imagination and preconceived judgment. Zimmerman would provoke and escalate a conflict until the confrontation turned lethal and then walk away innocent. Twice. Once after his crime was committed, and again, when the jury ruled he was not-guilty.
The case is an indictment not only of our justice system, but of our culture: from the gated community that Zimmerman was protecting, to the all-white jury that ruled on the case, to the ‘stand your ground’ defense that ultimately allowed Zimmerman to plead self-defense and be found not-guilty, this case points to the pernicious and persistent evils of racism that are alive and thriving in America today.
George Zimmerman was convinced Martin was a criminal, or as he told the 911 dispatcher, a “punk” and “a–hole.” He never met Martin. He had no idea who he was. He wanted Martin to be that “punk” so he could exercise his aggression, aggression he carried with him, long before that encounter with Martin. He came to the scene pre-loaded with rage, prejudice, and a vendetta.
Zimmerman may not be guilty according to the strictest reading of the law, but he is guilty nonetheless. Guilty of provocation, guilty of racial profiling, guilty of disregarding police instruction to stay in his car.
But the real culprit here is the lethality of racial stereotyping – Zimmerman’s, but also everyone’s. It’s systemic and institutionalized. The defense attorney is guilty, preying upon white fears and black stereotypes by waving a picture of a shirtless Martin to invoke racial stereotypes of dangerous young black men. And again, when he cross-examined Rachel Jeantel, Trayvon Martin’s friend, trying to paint her as a lair, and exaggerating his difficulty understanding her speech, he fanned those flames of stereotypes even more. The media are guilty as well, calling the post verdict protests “riots” and “lynch mobs,” to further the fear of black Americans.
And because of these stereotypes, at the end of the day, the jury, all white women, could more easily identify with Zimmerman than with Martin. It’s there, in that empathy gap, that stereotypes thrive. In the absence of contact with someone different from ourselves, we rely on the easy stereotypes offered to us. Yet even when we do encounter someone, even when we see with our very eyes someone who defies a stereotype, we disregard the facts to fit what we want to see. We have already taken sides with our inner images. Like Zimmerman, we are primed to see what we want to. Like shopkeepers who eye black customers more suspiciously than white ones. Like teachers who expect poor, black children to perform poorly. Yes, it happened that night between Zimmerman and Martin, but it happens on a daily basis, over and over again, it’s business as usual in the school, workplace, and in our justice system.
Dozens of studies have shown how bias works to disadvantage people based on race. When the job qualifications of the applicants were held constant, with identical resumes, job applicants with common white names received 50% more callbacks for interviews than applicants with common black names. Studies have also shown how teacher’s biases influence the achievement of their students. Pupils rise to the level of teacher expectations—both positive and negative. And all too often this dovetails with race and class, disadvantaging most acutely poor, black students.
The Zimmerman case proves the insufficiency of our laws, but also shows how much work we have in front of us to fight our easy and lethal dependence on stereotypes. We’re blinded by what we want to see, filled up with stories and images that we’ve grown up with, that the media and entertainment industries exploit, and that politicians manipulate to get elected. It won’t be easy to get past this because those inner images and biases are automatic and self-confirming. They keep us safe in our picture of the world. As my friend, Shakil Choudhury, an educator and diversity consultant, says, we have to “catch ourselves in the act.” It’s that simple. Or that hard. Maybe Justice shouldn’t be blind as long as we live in a world in which others’ perceptions so sharply and unfairly determine our fate.