The post-racial America that was promised with the election of President Barack Obama feels as racial as ever. The case of George Zimmerman, currently on trial in Florida on a charge of second-degree murder for killing Trayvon Martin, is an especially glaring example.
By now the facts are widely known. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer in a gated community that had recently suffered a rash of burglaries and home invasions, shot the unarmed 17-year-old Martin with a licensed handgun during a struggle that followed Zimmerman observing the unfamiliar teenager’s suspicious behavior and calling police to report it. Although Zimmerman has always admitted firing the fatal shot to Martin’s chest, he has contended from the outset that he acted in self-defense after being attacked and while fearing for his life. Eyewitness testimony introduced by the prosecution has described Martin on top of Zimmerman “raining down punches” during a struggle, which is corroborated by injuries found on Zimmerman immediately after the incident, and no evidence or testimony introduced during the trial contradicts the defendant’s story. During a rambling and illogical closing statement the prosecution nonetheless asserted that “Martin did nothing wrong,” and spent the rest of the lengthy oration conceding the legality of Zimmerman’s actions prior to the shooting but making appeals to the jury’s emotions.
The case would have never been brought to trial, as the investigating police officers recommended, if not for the fact that Martin is black and Zimmerman has a white-sounding name and enough white lineage that The New York Times and other news outlets were forced to create the previously unknown racial category of “white Hispanic” to describe him. These facts, which should be entirely irrelevant to the legal disposition of the matter, led to widespread protests and much media hysteria following the original police decision not to bring charges, and it was all based without a shrewd of evidence on the racist assumption that the “white” shooter had killed Martin because of a racial animus and that institutional racism was responsible for his freedom. It was the same sort of racial politics that had been at play in Tawana Brawley’s false charges of rape and kidnapping, the discredited charges of rape against the Duke University lacrosse team, a Mississippi teenager’s suicide that activists insisted was a lynching, and countless other real-life cases as well as the plot of Tom Wolfe’s masterpiece novel “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”
The protestors insisted that Martin was a peaceable lad who had been targeted merely because of his skin color and a “hoodie” sweatshirt that is apparently a uniform of the hip-hop sub-culture, the media usually chose to run pictures of Martin as an angelic-looking 12-year-old, and much emotion was invested in the narrative. NBC News aired a story with a tape of Zimmerman’s call to the police that was edited to make him sound racist, a “Million Hoodie March” drew participants around the country, countless people took to social media outlets to promise riots and the murder of Zimmerman in the case of an acquittal, and the President of the United States weighed in with the comment that “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
Subsequent revelations that it was all a simplistic lie did little to cool the emotions. Friends of various ethnicities testified to the press about Zimmerman’s cordial and even close relationships with black people, while stories surfaced of Martin’s drug use and penchant for street fights. Sending “tweets” under the handle of “No_Limit_Nigga,” Martin joshed with a cousin about punching a bus driver, and more recent photographs — including one self-portrait of Trayvon defiantly blowing marijuana smoke at the camera — are probably not what the president had in mind he claimed a family resemblance.
None of which is necessarily relevant to the case, either, and a trial is supposed to focus the jury’s and the public’s attention on what is pertinent. Race issues proved inescapable in the media’s coverage, however, with all the predictable guilt-mongering appearing in countless commentaries. A witness who described being on the telephone with Martin until shortly before his death was inconsistent, curt, unable to read a letter she had signed because “I don’t read cursive,” insisted that Martin’s description of Zimmerman as a “creepy-ass cracker” was not intended as a racial slur, and was clearly hostile to the court throughout her testimony, and because she was black several pundits propounded that anyone who noticed these things must be a racist. Other writers groused that the prosecution wasn’t emphasizing Zimmerman’s racial motives for the killing, as if he had any evidence to do so. The “tweets” threatening riots and revenge killings continued, although the president has lately been silent. A good story about a racist white man killing a young black choir boy has proved too appealing for mere facts to get in its way.
More frightening, though, is that so many people who will accept the facts as they have been shown in the courtroom and still feel justified in rioting or murder if Zimmerman is acquitted. A sizeable sub-culture of black youth, supported by a multi-billion dollar rap music industry and countless academicians and journalistic grandees, which Martin clearly claimed membership in, believes that any form of disrespect must be punished with severe violence. When Martin correctly perceived that Zimmerman had suspected him of potential misbehavior, the rules of the sub-culture dictate that he administer a beating on the “creepy-ass cracker” and Zimmerman therefore had no right defend himself with lethal force. Race might or might not have played some part in Zimmerman’s suspicions, and it might or might not have been reasonable if it if had, but the rules of the sub-culture insist on a presumption of racist motivation.
The consequences of an American court endorsing such rules would be catastrophic, of course, not matter how much it might satisfy the sub-culture’s sense of retributive justice. A conviction of Zimmerman should worry anyone who feels entitled to defend himself by any means possible if they find themselves in the all-too-possible position of being beneath a strapping young man and having his head slammed against the pavement, even in the all-too-possible case that it’s a strapping young black man, although we don’t worry that the people who feel this way will riot in the case of a conviction.
— Bud Norman