Systematic Injustice and the Myth of Post-Racial America

defaultDavid Pinsonneault & Sophie Carroll

We’ve heard the story countless times.  Shortly after 7:00 pm on February 26th, 2012, Trayvon Martin was walking through the Twin Lakes gated community when he was spotted by George Zimmerman.  There had been crimes reported in the area and Zimmerman, a member of the Neighborhood Watch, placed a phone call to the local dispatch informing them of a “real suspicious guy” who was “up to no good.”  As Zimmerman began tailing Martin, dispatch provided him with some very clear instructions:

Dispatch: Are you following him?

Zimmerman: Yeah.

Dispatch: Okay, we don’t need you to do that.

Zimmerman did not listen.  Instead, he pursued Trayvon Martin, ultimately shooting and killing the innocent, unarmed teenager at point-blank range.  His acquittal has sparked outrage across the country–and given a face to dynamics at work in both the legal system and society.

Stand Your Ground

The jury’s ruling is rooted in a law known as “Stand Your Ground.”  Because of this law, the jury found Zimmerman guilty of neither murder nor manslaughter, meaning that they considered his lethal, point-blank shooting of Trayvon Martin to be excusable and/or justified.

“Stand your Ground” originates from the 1895 case Beard v. U.S., in which the Supreme Court ruled that a man is entitled to defend himself against an individual who he believes is intending upon or in the process of taking his life or doing him bodily harm.  As you might imagine, the law is primarily applied to situations of home invasion.

In stark contrast to such a situation, George Zimmerman deliberately, and against the express orders of a police dispatch,  followed Trayvon Martin.  George Zimmerman was armed, while Trayvon Martin was not–and while Zimmerman is permitted to carry a gun in Florida, he was not permitted to be an armed member of the Neighborhood Watch.  So we must ask if the “Stand Your Ground” law can truly be applied to this case, even if Trayvon Martin had been armed or if he had been a criminal.  Zimmerman’s decision to act of his own accord, against the explicit instructions of the police dispatch, and follow Trayvon Martin makes the legal status of Zimmerman’s actions murky at best.  This is because Zimmerman sought out an altercation with Trayvon Martin, thus clouding his claim of self-defense.  Zimmerman’s actions qualify as armed vigilantism, which is strictly prohibited by law. Again, we must ask if the law truly excuses Trayvon’s shooting.

If Trayvon’s shooting is not excusable, is it then justified?  Once again, we turn to the law.   During the trial, the fact that Trayvon Martin ran was used as one reason that Zimmerman’s actions were justified.  But given the circumstances that he was being deliberately followed by an unknown and possibly threatening person, it is Trayvon’s actions that seem justified.  It was also recounted in the trial that Martin punched Zimmerman, and this “fact” (since we cannot have Martin’s testimony) was used to justify Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon.  But if the “Stand Your Ground” law is not intended to condone racial targeting, then in principle it applies to Trayvon Martin as well–meaning that, if Martin had felt threatened by a strange, armed man following him (and it’s really not a great stretch to imagine that he did) then Martin had the legal right, under the “Stand Your Ground” law, to defend himself.  This law, therefore, ought to justify Martin’s actions, not Zimmerman’s.

Instead, the jury’s ruling tells us that if Zimmerman was afraid of Martin, he was excused from disobeying direct orders and he was justified to follow him.  He was justified to confront Martin until he felt threatened enough to shoot him.  His fear of this unarmed teenager gave him the right to put a bullet in him. Likewise, the ruling tells us that, in direct contradiction to Florida law, Trayvon Martin did not have the right to defend himself even though he had far greater reason to fear than George Zimmerman. This is what the jury’s ruling means and this is why we should be critical of it.  In essence, the court has ruled that Trayvon Martin justified both his own execution and Zimmerman’s fear and suspicion…by standing his ground?  By walking down the street in a hooded sweatshirt?  Why does it seem as if Trayvon Martin was on trial for his own death.


Many cite George Zimmerman’s identity as Hispanic as proof that race played neither into Zimmerman’s actions nor the jury’s verdict.  After all, Hispanics are also marginalized in the society in which we live.  But what about Trayvon Martin’s identity? From the moment that George Zimmerman saw the young black man, Zimmerman profiled Martin as a suspicious person, probably “on drugs”–someone who did not belong, not in Zimmerman’s neighborhood, a gated community, a predominantly white place.  George Zimmerman and the jurors probably both did believe that Zimmerman’s life was in danger.  But why was Zimmerman so afraid of Trayvon Martin?  Why did the jurists identify so strongly with this fear so as to rule that Zimmerman’s shooting of an unarmed, innocent minor was excusable and/or justified?

The answer is race. Slavery built this country, and other forms of racialized exploitation and commodification continue to benefit it.  In order to maintain these benefits, the United States is built in a racial hierarchy, a sort of “trickle-down” freedom in which white people stand at the top, controlling most of the resources.  The benefits of being white in this country span from the obvious (higher incomes) to the more subtle (for example, a 2004 American Economic Review study found that employers are more likely to hire people with ‘white-sounding’ names than ‘black-sounding’ names).  A key role of the racial hierarchy is portraying minority races in a comparatively negative light, resulting in effects spanning a continuum from ‘harmless’ stereotypes (for example, a recent Harvard anthropology study found that white people are more likely to believe that black people feel less pain) to racialized violence.

I honestly believe that if it had been a white teenager walking home from a convenience store in Trayvon’s place that night, Zimmerman would not have followed him. Even minorities are not impervious to the pressure the racial hierarchy exerts to identify the “other” and put blame on them.  A culture that paints young black men as violent thugs and encourages racial profiling made Zimmerman believe that Trayvon Martin was armed, dangerous, and criminal.  And even though it was Zimmerman’s belief, and not Martin’s actions, that killed Trayvon Martin, a jury of white women sympathized with Zimmerman’s fear of the potentially armed and dangerous black man, rather than with Martin’s family seeking justice for their dead son.

The System Works 

Injustice threatens everyone’s peace.  Zimmerman’s acquittal does not set a dangerous precedent; it upholds the dangerous precedent.  The Martin case is simply a higher-profile version of events that unfold among us all the time.  Another case gaining attention in Florida is the shooting of seventeen-year-old Jordan Davis; he was murdered by a white man who first saw a car full of black kids and told his spouse he hated thug music.  The man exchanged words with the car and then felt threatened enough that he fired his gun at the car.  The list goes on. Trayvon Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal are not exceptions to prove some ‘rule’ that we live in a post-racial society. The system did not fail in this instance; rather, it functioned the way it always has, in a society in which race is still very much an issue.  Even President Obama, upon speaking on how much race placed a role in this case, is scorned for “politicizing” it–but as a white man I am unlikely to be accused of ‘playing the race card’ for writing this article.  Because I am white and President Obama is not, I am freer than the President where race is concerned.

The conversation about race is happening.  If white people want to be a part of it, they must begin listening; to be neutral on this issue is to continue benefiting from it. I can walk down the street in a hoodie and not feel threatened; if something happened to me, my family would receive justice. These are basic rights.  We must hold the system accountable for denying these rights to countless people, including Trayvon Martin.

Take Action: 

If you stand with Trayvon Martin, and believe his right to life was violated, sign this petition to urge the U.S. Justice Department to file a civil case against George Zimmerman.


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