Politics & Law

It’s not George Zimmerman, it’s the system

Stephen Menendian

Like many Americans, I was deeply – viscerally – disappointed in the Florida jury’s verdict to acquit George Zimmerman. While I can understand how a jury might have at least a sliver of reasonable doubt about Zimmerman’s guilt, since the only other eyewitness to the fight is dead, I am nonetheless deeply saddened by the verdict and disturbed by the set of meanings and narratives generated by it.

As I wrote over a year ago, the “tragedy of Trayvon Martin perfectly captures this nation’s deepest race problems, and yet almost no one is talking about what those problems really are.” The trial itself, the media narratives (both pro-Zimmerman and anti-Zimmerman), and the pundit analysis all miss the larger more critical issues revealed by this case.

Million Hoodies NYC protest

At a NYC Union Square “Million Hoodies” protest, March 2012. ( Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons)

For instance, the question of whether George Zimmerman is a racist is beside the point. Even if the jury had decided that Zimmerman was a bigot of the first order, and instigated the fight based upon conscious or unconscious racial stereotypes, it may have proved irrelevant to the decisive legal issue of self-defense under Florida law, which allows an initial aggressor to use deadly force in the middle of an altercation. But it’s also beside the point in a larger sense as well. As I wrote last April:

The question isn’t whether George Zimmerman is a racist. The question is what cultural cues, scripts and neighborhood arrangements prompted Mr. Zimmerman to view Trayvon as suspicious.

The question isn’t whether Mr. Zimmerman is a bigot, but rather what hostile territorialism or defensive neighborhood protectionism generated a misguided sense of responsibility to zealously pursue Travyon despite being told by the police to back off?

The question isn’t whether Mr. Zimmerman was chasing down Trayvon like a vigilante, but what anxieties contributed to a combustible situation?

The question of whether George Zimmerman is racist is beside the point because the system is racist. And I don’t just mean the criminal justice system (which Michelle Alexander calls “the New Jim Crow”), but the larger set of structures of which it is a component part.

The questions I posed above have answers. It is deep structural forces, like pervasive patterns of residential racial segregation and subconscious implicit biases which make black youth seem outsiders or criminally suspect in private, largely white gated communities that are at issue.

The production of racial inequality in contemporary America is less a result of individual racial prejudice than a product of culturally embedded, subconscious racial associations, and metropolitan patterns and neighborhood arrangements which distribute opportunity unevenly across space.

Gate house

Gated-community entrance: guests to the left, residents to the right.  (Daniel R. Tobias/Wikimedia Commons)

Neither the questions I posed nor the answers I just suggested are a prominent part of the Trayvon Martin narrative. Yet, they are visible everywhere. As just one example, consider the dramatic testimony of Rachel Jeantel’s and the controversy over it. As one commentator observed, Jeantel is “a 19-year-old high school student of Haitian descent who knows nothing more than the few block radius she has grown up in. The cultural differences [between her and the jury] are exponential.” While Jeantel became the target of racist commentary and much scorn, few seemed to explicitly question – let alone critique – the arrangements that might produce such a cultural gulf: how segregated housing and educational systems might generate cultural misunderstandings between a young black woman, who grew up in a racially and economically isolated environment, and a predominately white jury.  Similar misunderstandings and cultural miscues may have played a role in the confrontation between Trayvon and George Zimmerman and its escalation.

Our metropolitan areas are so segregated and jurisdictionally fragmented that traveling a few blocks might mean a different world in terms of race, class, opportunity and cultural milieu. What made Trayvon suspicious to George Zimmerman, I believe, are patterns of concentrated poverty and segregated that generate the different worlds that the jury and Ms. Jeantel inhabited.These patterns of segregation reinforce racial stereotypes, by rendering young black men outsiders and, therefore, criminally suspicious.

What troubles me even more is that, as a society and nation, rather than pursing policies that promote inclusion and address these racialized structures and patterns, we are busy dismantling them. Rather than improving conditions that led to the death of Trayvon Martin, we are exacerbating them.

Emmett Till

Emmett Till, 1954.

Just a few weeks ago the Supreme Court struck down a critical provision of the Voting Rights Act on the false premise that race no longer matters – that it no longer justifies federal oversight of southern states. The Supreme Court is set to hear an equally important case this fall to decide whether government housing decisions that produce a discriminatory impact can be challenged under the Fair Housing Act. Given this Court’s track record, it seems poised, if not eager, to take away this right. Disparate impact litigation in housing is one of the few remaining tools for addressing patterns of residential segregation.

In focusing on the wrong question, commentators like Slate’s William Saleton miss the larger point. The trial of George Zimmerman is not just about George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, just as the brutal murder of Emmett Till was not just about Emmett Till. Emmett Till’s murder exposed a system of Jim Crow terror and injustice to the world. Similarly, Trayvon Martin’s death exposes an equally unjust system rooted not in bigoted individual racism, but structural inequality with a profound racial dimension.

The peaceful protestors now in the streets of this nation are not protesting merely against a jury verdict they disagree with, but a system they understandably view as unjust. The urban disorders of the late 1960s investigated and famously reported by the Kerner Commission were not merely a response to a particular precipitating incident, such as the killing of Vietnam veteran Danny Thomas by a White gang in Detroit, but a long pattern of injustice triggered and brought into focus by a precipitating event. Similarly, the Trayvon Martin protests now gathering across this country are motivated by a broader view of the injustice in our system.

A single case of injustice would hardly be enough to generate this kind of ground swell or resonate that broadly. The tragedy of Trayvon Martin moves us because its senselessness brings into dramatic focus the impact of an unjust system on yet another young life.

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Comments to "It’s not George Zimmerman, it’s the system":
    • sangdi bill

      If you’re going to discuss in those terms then you have to include the fact that so many young black men commit crimes and that’s what contributes to the sense of territorialism and protectionism. As it is, George was only looking at/for Trayvon, Trayvon attacked George and might have killed him, just what George feared and that’s what caused him to have a gun in the first place.

      If you want the system to be more responsive, it has to be both ways, black men have to be ready to recognize that it’s not OK to be a criminal.

      [Report abuse]

    • CK

      When you’re the director of an institute that specializes in racism, I guess everything becomes about race. So you miss the other cues, like wearing a hoodie with the hood up. This simple form of dress has become ingrained in people’s minds as the sign of a ciminal, and not just black criminals. The unabomber is probably the most famous criminal to make the hoodie a sign of a criminal, but there is plenty of footage of various crimes where wearing the hood allows criminals to disguise their identity. If Martin wasn’t wearing the hood up, or was wearing a polo shirt, he may not have even been noticed.
      And hest, read through the 46 calls, and you will find that most don’t talk about a black person. You see white and hispanics listed too, and most of the time, there isn’t any race mentioned. If Zimmerman is a racist as you think, then that must mean all those calls that don’t mention race, must be reports about white people, because a racist would tell us every time there was a black person involved.

      [Report abuse]

    • Stephen Thomas

      It took just a cursory reading to discover your error.

      Criminal cases are not symbols of something, nor are they opportunities for you to realize your dreams of atoning for some past injustice.

      This trial was solely about whether Zimmerman committed a crime.

      You pasted all this nonsense about civil rights on top of it, and you were just dead wrong. Probably, you paste this racism hysteria on everything you encounter in life.

      The system doesn’t have a problem. You do.

      [Report abuse]

    • AM Chopel

      I certainly agree that this is a precipitating incident that is causing us (as a society) to consider the larger systemic factors that incubate this sort of racism. This article, however, by dismissing the question of Zimmerman’s racism, paints it as an either/ or and almost relieves him of responsibility. Not only was the man racially profiling an adolescent, but, as Hest pointed out (and has been oddly missing from much of the commentary as well) this man has a violent past and anger issues. The racist system that we live in allowed him to take out his anger on a black child and get away with it. The fact that Zimmerman slipped through the cracks of the system is the other side of the coin- had he been black at 19 he would not have been released so easily after resisting arrest.

      The question of segregation and other cues that may incite racist thoughts or actions is certainly important, but again not the whole story here. Remember, Trayvon and his father were also residents of this gated community. Although I have not physically been there, I am inclined to believe that Sanford is not as white as portrayed, given the racial diversity seen in the case witnesses and in the protesters.

      This article is very important as it brings larger system issues back into the conversation. However, we must be careful to dichotomize large, complicated problems such as this one — systemic racism cannot survive without people who participate in it (thus the importance of implicit bias mentioned by the author )— and interpersonal racism would be reduced to the stigmatized commentary or punished actions of a few wack-jobs in the absence of systemic racism. They depend on each other, so to eradicate both we must address both.

      [Report abuse]

    • Vinny G

      Zimmerman is a bully and a coward. The comment by Tallaman is the perfect example of why stand your ground laws are a disaster. Perfectly normal people can somehow try and use those laws to try and justify murder. The best rebuttal any arguments in favor of for stand your ground laws can be found here.

      [Report abuse]

    • hest

      Why is the discussion about Zimmerman’s history of violence not discussed? In July 2005, he was arrested for “resisting officer with violence.” The neighborhood watch volunteer who wanted to be a cop got into a scuffle with cops who were questioning a friend for alleged underage drinking. The charges were reduced and then waived after he entered an alcohol education program.

      Then in August 2005, Zimmerman’s former fiance sought a restraining order against him because of domestic violence. Zimmerman sought a restraining order against her in return. Both were granted.

      Meanwhile, over the course of eight years, Zimmerman made at least 46 calls to the Sanford (Fla.) Police Department reporting suspicious activity involving black males? WHY ARE THESE ISSUES AVOIDED ON??????????

      [Report abuse]

    • Tallaman

      “what hostile territorialism or defensive neighborhood protectionism generated a misguided sense of responsibility…”

      If you’re going to discuss in those terms then you have to include the fact that so many young black men commit crimes and that’s what contributes to the sense of territorialism and protectionism. As it is, George was only looking at/for Trayvon, Trayvon attacked George and might have killed him, just what George feared and that’s what caused him to have a gun in the first place.

      If you want the system to be more responsive, it has to be both ways, black men have to be ready to recognize that it’s not OK to be a criminal.

      [Report abuse]

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