Since the verdict in George Zimmerman's trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin, there has been a lot of traffic on the internet trying to parse what it all means about American politics, the state of race relations in the United States, and the nature of the criminal justice system. For my part, I only paid passing attention to the trial itself, though I followed the initial events quite closely. Needless to say, I was shocked and dismayed that Zimmerman was acquitted, even when the jury was given the option to convict him of the lesser (and probably more appropriate) charge of manslaughter.
On the one hand, I think there can be no question that Martin's murder and Zimmerman's acquittal are rooted in the lingering fact of racism in the United States. As many people have pointed out in the past few days, it is hard to imagine that if the roles were reversed in this case, and a black man had stalked and murdered an unarmed latino boy, that the results would have been the same. The fact that the jury was largely white may have played a role, though obviously these kinds of things are hard to determine definitively.
An editorial in the nation stated the underlying issue well from my perspective:
When Zimmerman was acquitted today, it wasn’t because he’s a so-called white Hispanic. He’s not. It’s because he abides by the logic of white supremacy, and was supported by a defense team—and a swath of society—that supports the lingering idea that some black men must occasionally be killed with impunity in order to keep society-at-large safe.
At the same time, it is worth noting, as Ta-Nehisi Coates notes in The Atlantic, that the prosecution was dealt a weak hand from the beginning:
I think the jury basically got it right. The only real eyewitness to the death of Trayvon Martin was the man who killed him. At no point did I think that the state proved second degree murder. I also never thought they proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he acted recklessly. They had no ability to counter his basic narrative, because there were no other eye-witnesses.
And this is of course in large measure the issue: The law in Florida as it now stands allows for a murderer to claim self-defense against an unarmed teenager. The law is written explictly to permit the kinds of acts that George Zimmerman engaged in, which, even if one believed the defense's version of events (which I don't), and grant the idea that Martin attacked Zimmerman, simply should not be permitted.
It is now the case that any physical alteraction in the state of Florida can culminate in someone's death, and as long as the killer can credibly claim that they are "standing their ground" they can get away with it. And in the absence of another witness, such claims are frighteningly easy to make.
But more disturbing to me has been the degree to which Zimmerman has been held up as some kind of hero by figures on the American political right. This seems to be an example of what Matt Yglesias often refers to as the right wing's obssions with being "anti-anti-racist." In other words, the argument goes, "racism, either personal or structural is no longer a problem in the United States; rather, the problem now is those who seek to make racism a problem by continuing to bring it up." Thus, as Ed Kilgore noted in the Washington Monthly, blacks are admonished to "get over" Jim Crow, even as the Supreme Court cuts the heart out of the voting rights act and state after state passes laws explicitly and self-consciously designed to reduce the black vote.
And of course, this provides ongoing cover for those who are willing to traffic in explicitly racist rhetoric, making insinuations about the propensity of blacks to riot in the wake of unpopular court verdicts (without of course, either a) considering whether that's actually true or b) contemplating why a riot might seem to be a reasonable response in a community for which the courts have often not historically been a vehicle for justice). Fox news, as usual, straddles this divide quite neatly, seldom explicitly crossing over into overtly racist tropes, while at the same time feeding the racial animus of its core audience.
I am optimistic and forward-looking by nature, and tend to believe that, in the end, justice tends to prevail over injustice. As Martin Luther King once said, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Yet, on days like today, in the wake of verdicts like Saturday's, that arc seems very long indeed, and it is for this reason that I cannot allow myself to be sustained by the mere facts of the moral world in which we live, but to be sustained by the possibility that that arc does in fact, far off in the distance, beyond my line of sight, ultimately bend toward justice.