The NAACP’s appeal for federal review of the Florida verdict in the murder case against George Zimmerman reprises the calls for federal statutory remedies for racial homicides, made first in the wake of the Civil War, then in the following decades to control lynching, and finally after the gay-hating murder of Matthew Shepard and the lynching of James Byrd.
As these laws and reform efforts signal, the national government should bear primary responsibility for punishing violent suppression of constitutional rights — including the rights to life and due process. But unfortunately there is no neat fit between existing law and the known facts in the Zimmerman case.
The Civil War-era statutes, enfeebled by the post-Reconstruction Supreme Court, are aimed at conspiracies or at public officials. The Senate infamously voted against lynching legislation in the 1930s and ’40s and in any case the one man shooting of Trayvon Martin was not a lynching. The hate crimes laws, adopted in 1968 and amended in 2009, require proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the homicide was motivated by animus toward a protected group, but clearly the Florida jury rejected that claim. Nor has the modern Supreme Court upheld remedies designed to assure even-handed criminal justice, as in the death penalty context, where it has rejected relief despite evidence of racial bias. In short, federal law offers little help.
The essential, common dynamic which propelled the entire series of events in Sanford, Fla. — the shooting, the investigation and the trial — was that neither Zimmerman nor the police saw Trayvon Martin for what he was: a barely 17-year-old kid walking home from the store, scared because he was being followed by a stranger.
The law is famously inadequate in protecting people against this kind of skewed perspective, and the history of that failure helps explain the vast differences in the perceptions of white and black Americans on the fairness of the Florida verdict.
To claim that the verdict was true to the evidence and that it proves the worthiness of our justice system, is to disregard the deep and abiding distrust black youth have for a system rigged against them.
And why should they believe otherwise?
Throughout our nation’s history, the Department of Justice has rarely prosecuted racial killings. Before 1965, no more than a dozen cases were brought, although reported lynchings numbered in the thousands. Meanwhile, African-Americans were — and still are — imprisoned at catastrophic rates. And today, any young person of color who has been in a courtroom can still feel the invisible hand of racial bias. Indeed, in the Zimmerman trial, the race and class of Trayvon Martin’s friend, Rachel Jeantel, undermined her credibility as much as any discrepancy in her testimony.
In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that there was no need to reverse the conviction of a black man who killed a white man, even though statistical evidence established that defendants accused of killing whites were four times more likely to get the death penalty than those accused of killing blacks. The court rejected the death penalty appeal of one Warren McCleskey, reasoning that evidence did not prove there was racial animus in his particular case.
Trayvon Martin is today’s McCleskey. The increased risks to which our criminal justice system exposed him were contributing factors in Martin’s death and in Zimmerman’s exoneration. But, tragically, they were also apparently legally irrelevant.
Reductive as they necessarily are, trials can expose more complex understandings of how race operates, even “post-racially,” to thwart our best efforts to render equal justice.
Again, neither Zimmerman nor the investigating police saw Trayvon Martin for what he was: an unarmed black kid being pursued by an armed white stranger. If he had been a girl, or a white male, he would not be dead today. And that is where our system, which some claim to be “the best in the world,” is not good enough.
- Cognoscenti: Eileen McNamara: No Race In The Courtroom, No Justice For Trayvon Martin
- Here & Now: Rev. Jesse Jackson on the verdict, what’s ahead
- Did social media help ease tensions after Zimmerman verdict?
- On Point: Zimmerman is found not guilty; public reacts