I discussed the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial with my mother, a 65-year-old white woman. She, unlike me, is politically and socially liberal. She was perplexed, though, by the media response to the verdict. Why the outrage?
What I explained to my mother was my best exercise in empathy, because I struggle to understand the outrage too.
If we were a black family, especially one living in the Deep South, this might look different to us, I reasoned. If she had been born black, when she was a little girl, white people wouldn’t feel the need to apologize for calling her a “n*gger child,” or telling her she couldn’t eat near them, or shuttling her off to an elementary school that was certainly separate but was only equal in theory. My mom would have grown up watching white police officers call her father “boy.” She would have had to observe my grandfather grow meek and obsequious when approached by a white man, especially one with a badge or a gun. He wouldn’t shrink into obeisance because he wasn’t strong and proud, or because he wasn’t law-abiding. He would do so because he couldn’t risk being perceived as “mouthy” or “uppity” by someone who could hurt him or his family for social transgressions as minimal as that….
My mom, if she had been born black in the South at her age, might have known men who looked like her dad and her brothers who were found dead after crimes no greater than perceived impertinence to white men. Men like her dad who were found in ditches, hanging from trees, shot in their own beds. Men snatched while walking home from work, never found. Deaths treated by authorities as suicides or presumed black violence or, if a white neighbor was implicated, as a white man defending himself against a black aggressor. This, even though everyone knew better.
If my mother had been born black and in the South, she would have remembered black teenaged boys, buying bubble gum at the candy store, flirting with white girls, whose bodies later washed up on the shore of the Tallahatchie River. She would recall the white men responsible for the death being indicted, but only after a national public outcry. The men would be acquitted, though afterwards they would admit to the murders and still insist they did nothing wrong. She would remember Emmett Till. She would remember the exoneration of his murderers, Ron Bryant and John William Milam.
What if my mother had grown up in the bloody, cruel, inherently unjust American Apartheid, and I had grown up the daughter of someone who had internalized that reality? I can try to understand, but I never really will. I cannot pretend that this difference in experience might not yield a difference in perspective.
So, as I told my mother today, maybe Trayvon Martin’s death looks different when seen through other eyes. Maybe it looks like this: The white man walks out of the courthouse a free man, and the young black teenager lies in his grave. Again.
I can understand how that would rend open a transcendentally painful, collective wound. Something that doesn’t completely heal. A concrete, present set of facts can activate an ancient sense of something unspeakably wrong.
But State v. Zimmerman was not the trial of Ron Bryant or John William Milam. No matter how much we wish we could retry those cases, we can’t. And in Sanford, Florida this week, they didn’t.
The jury found Zimmerman not guilty because the prosecution’s case left open at least some reasonable doubt about who was the initial aggressor in the fight between the defendant and the victim and about whether the defendant had a reasonable fear of death or serious injury at the time he pulled the trigger. The jury did not need to know that Zimmerman didn’t start the fight, nor did they need to know that he had this fear.
Am I sure that Zimmerman was not the initial aggressor? No. Am I sure Zimmerman believed that Martin was beating him so badly that the only way to survive was to shoot? No. Do I think it’s possible that Zimmerman followed Martin simply because Martin was a black male? Yes. I can speculate about possibilities like anyone can, but without conclusive physical evidence and eyewitness testimony, I think there is certainly reasonable doubt about what actually happened. Under our system, this ought to lead a jury to acquit.
Our criminal justice system is, as wiser folks than me have noted, not a barter system. We don’t get to trade one defendant’s acquittal for another’s. We don’t get to make a recent victim a proxy for an earlier one.
I get that it feels different for many black Americans. I don’t know how exactly it feels different for them, but I understand that it does. I can and should listen respectfully and earnestly to those experiences and feelings. And I can still think that those feelings should not govern the outcome of this particular case.
This case is just a case. This case. A case where the state could not carry the burden of proof for mundane, ordinary reasons. Maybe bad facts, maybe a bad presentation of those facts. A case where a human being is tragically, prematurely dead. A terrible season for two families, like in so many criminal cases. It is not a proxy war. It is not symbolic of anything.
How does a criminal case become racial synecdoche? For one thing, the hyperactive media spin up a narrative.
George Zimmerman’s ethnicity proved something of an inconvenient wrinkle in this narrative, of course. After all, “Hispanic Man Defends Himself” doesn’t play the same as “White Man Shoots Black Teen.” So, the media subtly equivocated. Soon, Zimmerman “identified as Hispanic.” (I identify as white, but I wouldn’t expect anyone to add the extra words when describing me. Do we usually turn race or ethnicity into a phrase about self-image?) Then, he was “half-Hispanic.” (Like President Obama is our first “half-black president”?) His “father is white but his mother was born in Peru.” (These classifications are not necessarily mutually exclusive. A person could be blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and born in a Spanish-speaking country and not be a fake Hispanic.) Then, finally, Zimmerman “appears white.” (Because somehow what really matters, what really needs to be stressed here, according to media coverage, is how George Zimmerman appears. And he looks like the white antagonist our proxy war needs him to be.)
If anything, the media’s treatment of Zimmerman’s identity suggests that many of us don’t quite understand what it’s like to be Hispanic in America either.
Perhaps so many Americans want this trial to mean something beyond the trial itself because it’s safer to talk about race and ethnicity this way, by picking sides we identify with. Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman become characters in a story about how it feels to live in America. They become stand-ins for us when it’s too difficult to speak in the first-person. Our outrage over the verdict, or or inability to understand the outrage over the verdict, may say more about us than about the case itself.
Tamara Tabo is a summa cum laude graduate of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the school’s law review. She has clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and worked as a researcher for multiple projects on the intersection of cognitive science and law, including Baylor College of Medicine’s Initiative on Neuroscience and the Law. She looks forward to a career of teaching and writing about, but never practicing, law. You can reach her at [email protected]