I wish I could say I was surprised by George Zimmerman’s acquittal. I wish I could say that I thought this nearly all white jury would be different. I wish I could say that I thought the facts were so obvious that no jury could sanction Trayvon Martin’s killing. But we have seen this script before. And since reading Paul Ortiz’s Emancipation Betrayed
---reviewed in these pages in 2005
--- I’ve known that Florida’s history of racial violence against African-Americans is as bad as that of Alabama or Mississippi, only less publicized.
Activists are trained to use extreme examples of social or racial injustice to mobilize the public to prevent future wrongs. And I applaud those responding to the Trayvon Martin injustice in such a manner. But when you see episodes of violent racism against blacks repeated year after year, decade after decade, it is hard to be optimistic. The United States is retreating in its commitment to racial justice. The Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, and put affirmative action on life support. States are passing voter identification laws to deter minority voting. The media can analyze the specifics of the trial all it wants, but the bottom line is that like Emmett Till
, the 14-year old lynched in 1955 for meeting the eyes of a white woman, Trayvon Martin was killed solely because he was African-American---and in both these cases and thousands more, their murderers were acquitted.
When I studied constitutional law, many of my fellow law students went to great pains to find “objective” legal reasons for court decisions obviously driven by the judges racial and class biases. Having committed to a field allegedly built on legal reasoning and case precedents, these students could not accept that racist and elitist judges issue rulings to advance their personal views.
This conscious suppression of racial realities explains media coverage of the Trayvon Martin case. Each day, the performances of the prosecutor, defense counsel, witnesses and judge were carefully analyzed. Much attention was given to Florida's "Stand Your Ground" defense, which was seized upon by those desperate to find a non-racial basis for the outcome.
The media treated the Zimmerman trial as if Florida's and the nation's long history of racial bias in trials involving the killing of African-Americans would not be determinative (while Zimmerman is Latino, he was identified as white by the police that refused to arrest him after the murder). The trial judge barred overt discussions of race, even though that's what millions of Americans knew the case was about.
Many of us held out a shred of hope that this would be the rare case where a nearly all white Florida jury would do what white juries in the South and much of America have almost never done: convict an armed white-identified man for killing an unarmed black man.
But anyone thinking there was a chance of Zimmerman’s conviction had to know the fix was in when the top law enforcement officer testified he believed the killer's story despite its many inconsistencies. If the police, who did not even arrest Zimmerman for the murder, believed his claim of self-defense, how could the jury find otherwise?
Obama’s Post-Racial America
After Obama’s election, a narrative emerged that we were in a “post-racial” America. Yet as the Trayvon Martin case and many other examples confirm, Obama’s 2008 victory and his re-election in 2012 heightened fears among many whites that blacks and Latinos were “taking over” the country.
That’s why gun sales have exploded, and why House Republicans openly talk about the Latino “threat” to American values. Right-wing talk radio sees George Zimmerman as a hero. As Daily Kos’s Markos Moulitsas only half-jokingly said prior to the verdict, Zimmerman will either go to jail or be a keynote speaker at the 2016 Republican Convention.
The white backlash against the federal civil and voting rights acts of 1964-66 has not gone away. And Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election left white racists feeling under siege.That Latino votes helped elect Obama in both 2008 and 2012 intensified these feelings, as did demographic trends that show the percentage of white voters in national elections decreasing.
Paula Deen is not the only prominent white person openly expressing racist views. Sirius XM employs a nighttime sports talk host, Dino Costa, who described Hank Aaron as “disgusting” for criticizing baseball’s lack of outreach to African-Americans. Costa, like Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin and others, know that as long as they don’t use the “n-word” any disparaging comments about blacks are fair game.
The extreme market fragmentation caused first by cable and then the Internet enables white media figures to thrive selling anti-black racism to their audience. And many whites in law enforcement or who end up serving on juries like that for Trayvon Martin listen to these shows and become even more fearful and resentful toward blacks.
The traditional media could not come out and say that a nearly all-white Sanford, Florida jury would never convict a white-identified man for killing an African-American. But this verdict is consistent with America’s shameful history, and Trayvon Martin joins a long list of victims.
Randy Shaw is Editor of BeyondChron.