One More Thing

I really want to move on from the George Zimmerman trial, but I keep thinking about President Obama’s statement. There is something that he said that really bothers me.

The second thing I want to say is to reiterate what I said on Sunday, which is there’s going to be a lot of arguments about the legal issues in the case — I’ll let all the legal analysts and talking heads address those issues. The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed that in a case such as this reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury has spoken, that’s how our system works.

I wish that he had stopped there. That is the only thing he needed to say and if he had stopped with that he might have done a great deal of good for this country. He had to continue in order to put things in context, though.

But I did want to just talk a little bit about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling.

You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.

There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear. The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.

Now, this isn’t to say that the African American community is naïve about the fact that African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system; that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact — although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context. They understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.

And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And the fact that a lot of African American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African American boys are more violent — using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.

I think the African American community is also not naïve in understanding that, statistically, somebody like Trayvon Martin was statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else. So folks understand the challenges that exist for African American boys. But they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there’s no context for it and that context is being denied. And that all contributes I think to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.

Now, the question for me at least, and I think for a lot of folks, is where do we take this? How do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction? I think it’s understandable that there have been demonstrations and vigils and protests, and some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through, as long as it remains nonviolent. If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family. But beyond protests or vigils, the question is, are there some concrete things that we might be able to do.

What does all of this have to do with the actual trial? George Zimmerman was on trial for killing Trayvon Martin. The jury decided, reasonably in my opinion, that there was not enough evidence to convict Zimmerman of murder. George Zimmerman was not on trial for the past iniquities of American race relations. The treatment of African-Americans in this country has often been unjust and deplorable. We have made much progress in recent decades and will continue to do so, despite the efforts of race-hustlers like the President.

However, the trial of George Zimmerman could only be conducted on the basis of the facts in the case. The jury could only decide the verdict based on the facts presented to them by the attorneys. They could not and should not have taken into account America’s past history of race relations. That was irrelevant to the question of whether or not George Zimmerman is guilty of the charges brought against him. With his remarks, President Obama seems to be trying to make the Zimmerman trial a trial on American race relations. Would he have preferred that the jury find Zimmerman guilty as some sort of recompense for past injustices? Considering the efforts of his Justice Department to retry Zimmerman, I think the answer must be yes, even if the result is unjust for Mr. Zimmerman. Here again we see the difference between “social justice“, and actual justice.

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