Is George Zimmerman a racist? In my opinion (1) probably not, and (2) it’s irrelevant to the question of his guilt or innocence.
Murdering someone because of their race is a hate crime. But being racist is not in itself a crime. In a free country, people are not put on trial for their attitudes, or for what people think about their attitudes, but when they are accused breaking laws on the statue books. I can imagine someone being an avowed racist, yet having the good judgment not to go around with a loaded gun playing policeman. The issue in the Trayvon Martin killing is whether George Zimmerman was legally justified in taking a human life.
There was a time within living memory when a black man in communities such as Sanford, Fla., could be killed with impunity for speaking disrespectfully to a white person. I remember the case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy who was killed in 1955 in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman, and how the all-white jury acquitted the killers because they thought that was justifiable grounds for homicide.
I don’t believe the killing of Trayvon Martin was anything like this. But I do believe that if it had been me, a 75-year-old white man, wandering through a gated community in Sanford, Fla., on the night of Feb. 26, instead of a 17-year-old black youngster, I would still be alive. And if by chance it was my life that had been taken, I believe the local police would have been quick to treat it as a crime.
There are statistical disparities between how the criminal justice system treats white and black people, but they aren’t always what I would think. The law comes down much harder on black people for victimless crimes such as drug abuse. Surveys indicate that black and white people use illegal drugs in roughly the same percentages, but the overwhelming majority of people in prison for using illegal drugs are black. But when it comes to crimes of violence, the important variable is the race of the victim, not the accused. Black murderers of black people are treated more leniently on average than white murderers of white people. But the small number of black murderers of white people are treated more harshly on average than the smaller number of white murderers of black people.
My guess is that this goes back to the days of slavery and segregation, when white law enforcement officers didn’t care whether black people killed each other, and in the deep South thought that it was justified to kill black people to keep them in line. Old attitudes persist, even among people who’ve forgotten the reason for them.
It is all too easy to jump to conclusions about other people. There is a young black man who was a member of my church, an “A” student and an outstanding athlete. He went to State University College at Albany on a football scholarship. He was young giant, and at SUNY Albany was given a special diet and body-building exercises to build him up further. He was quiet and good-tempered, nicknamed the “gentle giant” by his high school classmates. Yet if I had met him on the street in a bad section of town at night, and not known who he was, I don’t know what I would have felt.
Many black parents try to teach their children how to appear nonthreatening to white people. They see every encounter with authority as a potential life-threatening situation. And if you read about all the cases where black men are shot and killed by police by mistake, you see this is not an overreaction. Not that George Zimmerman had the authority of a law enforcement officer. He was just a guy with a gun.
I am fortunate to have had parents who taught me to judge people as individuals, not by race, religion and nationality. Like most human beings, I have my biases, conscious and unconscious, but I try not to let my judgments and actions be controlled by these biases.
Click on George Zimmerman: Prelude to a shooting for a sympathetic portrait of George Zimmerman by Reuters news service.
Click on Are We Teaching Kids the Wrong Lesson About Trayvon? for an argument that what’s needed is not for black parents to talk to their children about how to navigate racial prejudice, but for white parents to have conversations with their children about why racism is morally wrong and intellectually untenable. I count myself fortunate that my own parents brought me up to judge people as individuals, and not on the basis of race, religion or nationality. That doesn’t make me free of prejudice, conscious and unconscious. It means I’ve been taught to try to overcome prejudice.
Click on Race plays complex role in Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ law for the Tampa Bay Times analysis of fatal shootings under Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which says that people have a right to use deadly force to defend themselves even if they could have avoiding the confrontation by retreating. The newspaper found that killers of black people were treated more leniently more often than killers of white people, but there are other factors that may have explained this.
Click on Trayvon Martin’s Death, and What It Says About Race, Privilege and Homicide for interesting statistics from the CrimeDime web log. These figures do not, however, prove what CrimeDime thinks they prove. The comment thread is as interesting as the post.
Click on Sanford, Florida’s Long Troubled History of Racism and Racial Injustice for background on hate crimes in that community, including running Jackie Robinson out of town. I think many black people and few white people are familiar with this background, and this may explain why black and white people respond on average so differently. Of course this is neither here nor there concerning George Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence.
Click on The Murder of Emmett Till for background on that case. I don’t think this is something that could happen today.