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The Persistence of Racism in America
I received the text message from my buddy blasting the acquittal of George Zimmerman minutes before I boarded an airplane in London in route to South Africa.
To say I was not surprised by the acquittal handed down by the predominately white, all-female jury is an understatement.
That verdict freeing wannabe cop Zimmerman, whose self-defense excuse rested on his conflicted claims that he shot a teen through the heart during a confrontation that Zimmerman started – after Zimmerman ignored explicit orders from police to stand-down – is so symbolic of so many structural problems that have corroded the core of American society since its colonial-era start.
Unarmed teen Trayvon Martin was walking to his father’s home after purchasing candy and ice tea when targeted by Zimmerman who – seeing a black teen wearing a hoodie – told police dispatchers Martin was “up to no good” and looked like he was on drugs. Zimmerman’s observations, made at night in the rain, about Martin being up-2-no-good and on-drugs reeked of racial profiling – a fact downplayed by prosecution and studiously avoided by defense during Zimmerman’s trial.
While a part of me wanted to side with my buddy’s ire at Zimmerman’s not even getting a wrist-slap conviction on a lesser charge for his punk admission that he killed a kid who he said beat him up during a scuffle, another side of me remained detached, reminded as I was of the details in so many stories that I’ve covered in thirty-plus years of being a journalist.
I’ve seen too many racially unbalanced juries render acquittal verdicts in too many race-tainted cases where clear evidence of the white defendant’s culpability existed – culpability obscured by lack-luster prosecution and other perverse judicial system procedures/postures.
I remember writing about a black teen in Philadelphia who spent a year in prison awaiting trial for a rape because lazy police and prosecutors didn’t review a security camera tape that eventually freed that teen. And I remember writing about a Philadelphia judge giving big breaks to the white teens charged with raping a 13-year-old black girl at the city’s MLB stadium months after that black teen’s release.
Interestingly, lack-luster prosecutions and judicial system perversities don’t seem to affect the prosecution of minorities, particularly blacks. Blacks and Hispanics, for example, comprise over half of the inmates in Florida’s prison system despite those two groups accounting for slightly more than a third of Florida’s population. Do blacks commit crimes, disproportionately? Yes! But
mass incarceration of minorities ignores the fact that whites also commit crimes but disproportionately do not end up in dungeon-like prisons.
One of the first race-roiling stories I remember covering involved a white teen charged with killing a five-year-old black child in the mid-1970s. That teen had recklessly sped up a small street in South Philadelphia – driving in reverse and driving DRUNK – running over the child and then fleeing the scene.
Like the Trayvon Martin murder (and it was murder in real terms even if not legal definitions) it took public outrage to push prosecutors to haul that drunk-driving hit-and-run teen into court.
And, like the Martin murder, lack-luster prosecution laid the groundwork for that teen’s acquittal by an all-white jury.
The prosecutor assigned to that case had little trial experience, having been plucked from the DA’s law library staff – an act I always felt was intentional to limit prosecutorial effectiveness in the case. While the white teen defendant did not present a conflicted self-defense claim like Zimmerman, he did play a warped defense card. Basically his defense was: Oops – I made a stupid, alcohol-soaked mistake…I’m sorry…Kinda…Please don’t send me to jail with all those Nig…I mean Negroes who are real criminals.’ And that BS worked.
Many of the postmortems of Zimmerman’s acquittal faulted the prosecution for acting like a defense team member. The case presented by those prosecutors in Florida was so muddled it made reasonably competent lawyers cringe. And, yes, that muddled prosecution aided efforts by Zimmerman’s defense in snowing the jury on Zimmerman’s asserted (and evidence-challenged) claim of innocence of any wrongdoing.
Could an aggressive black prosecutor have done a better job than the dumb&dumber team assigned to the Zimmerman case? That’s debatable. However, it is beyond debate that few non-white prosecutors worked in the prosecutor’s office covering Sanford, Florida when Zimmerman killed young Martin. The office contained nearly three dozen prosecutors yet non-white prosecutors there could be counted on the fingers of one hand with a few fingers left over. That’s a fact I found when I contacted court administration officials in the Sanford area seeking such race-illuminating information – information detailing structural deficiencies that the mainstream media (conservative and liberal) persistently overlook as unimportant to report.
Remember, prosecutors in Sanford initially backed that city’s top police who reflexively accepted Zimmerman’s self-defense claim without question. Neither the legislative intent nor court interpretations of Florida’s controversial ‘Stand Your Ground’ law allow a person to start a confrontation, lose that confrontation and then shoot the victim of their aggression calling it a lawful act of self-defense.
A 2008 report by the Florida Supreme Court faulted the continuing lack of diversity among prosecutors, judges, court staffs and attorneys across the Sunshine State as contributing to both bias and diminishing “the concept of fairness.”
That 2008 report was a follow up on the Florida Supreme Court’s seminal 1990 report about race bias in the justice system that criticized the fact that minorities were “underrepresented” as judges in that state. Only one minority judge (a Hispanic) served among the 16 judges on duty when Zimmerman killed Martin in the judicial district encompassing Sanford, a small town about 20-miles from mega-theme-park famed Orlando.
A comment by a civil rights activist contained in that 2008 Florida high court report chillingly foreshadowed the acquittal of Zimmerman.
That activist, from a town near Sanford, told Florida Supreme Court examiners that most Florida blacks believe that “if you are white and kill a black, there is a very slim chance that you will be punished.”
Yes, embedded biases contributed to those jurors acquitting Zimmerman, the son of a former magistrate judge in Virginia – the state that once contained the capital of America’s Confederate states that fought to sustain slavery during America’s Civil War. Florida was an early member of those Confederate states.
No surprise that American society perniciously denies the role of race in its body politic.
Zimmerman’s father wrote an e-book defending his son where he proclaimed his belief that racism was a thing of the past until he rudely discovered real racists assailing his son: the NAACP (the nation’s oldest civil right organization) and the Congressional Black Caucus–two entities working to reduce the racism Zimmerman’s father doesn’t see around him daily.
The elder Zimmerman’s misperceptions on persistent race prejudice (that no doubt must have perverted justice in his former courtroom) are offensively systemic.
The denial of racism as an element operative in the acquittal of Zimmerman is similar to denials evident in responses some Florida judges provided Florida Supreme Court investigators’ for that 2008 report.
When answering a survey question, 70% of white judges in Florida insisted courts in their state treated whites and blacks alike – an opinion inconsistent with the findings of Florida Supreme Court investigative reports released in 1990, 2000 and 2008.
Although racially separate water fountains are a thing of the segregationist past and the U.S. twice elected a black man as president, separate and unequal justice remains.
Americans like to condemn South Africa for its once ugly system of apartheid, forgetting the fact that the architects and sustainers of apartheid in South Africa defended their system as modeled on American practices.
Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.