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Trayvon Martin: A fair trial in the face of segregation?

john a. powell, director, Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society | August 12, 2013

Much has been written and discussed concerning George Zimmerman and the killing of Trayvon Martin.  Not enough has been done, and there is some doubt that much will be done.  Some even argue that nothing should be done.  I believe there is a pressing need not only to continue the conversation, but also for action.  To do this, there needs to be some agreement that there are underlying problems that can and should be addressed.  For most in the black and progressive community, the need for action seems obvious.  But one only need look at the immediate response of Florida legislators, especially Republicans, to doubt if there will be a legislative response, even on Stand Your Ground laws.

While these are critical issues to engage, I want to call your attention to these issues from a different perspective.  I would like the reader to consider how he or she would respond to a set of circumstances.  Imagine you live in a city or state where laws are made by people of a different race, and possibly a different political party.  For those of you who are white, imagine you are in a jurisdiction dominated by blacks or Latinos policymakers.  You may feel that the concerns of whites are given short shrift.  You may even feel, regardless of the legislative intent, that laws enacted for public safety are not well tailored to make you or your community safer.

In fact, there may be a less-than-subtle assumption that the broader public is less safe because of your presence.  Consequently, the police and the community is given new powers to aggressively protect themselves from you.  Now, against that backdrop, there is a killing in your community of a white man, which many from the black and Latino community believe, consciously or implicitly, was dangerous.  In fact, suppose for the sake of argument that most white men were perceived as dangerous, as demonstrated through social science.

Consider further that the judge is also black or Latino, and the jury, which has no whites on it, will look at what happen and apply the laws passed without your input and regardless of your concerns, in this situation.  Would most white people, and especially white conservatives, believe that they would fairly have justice in this thought experiment?

Notice, even if the jury fairly applied the law, it begs the question, is the law itself fair?  Could it be fair in such circumstances?  One could substitute almost any set of groups into the hypothetical, and it would raise serious questions about fairness and democracy.  In our system of laws, one is supposed to be judged by a jury of one’s peers.  The underlying idea is that common experience and shared concerns affords a greater chance for justice than being tried by a judge.  Would white, middle-class suburbanites believe that low-income blacks living in Detroit are their peers in a case where the other party was black?  Our legal system is so concerned with bias that the framers of the Constitution assumed that if two parties were citizens of different states in a legal dispute, it might be difficult, if not impossible, to receive a fair trial in a state court.

For that reason, the Constitution allows such matters to be resolved in a presumably neutral federal court under diversity jurisdiction.   Yet, the prevailing patterns of de facto segregation, which separate communities by race and class across most of our major metropolitan regions, is not accounted for in our justice system.  In fact, our policies, such as Florida’s punitive felon disenfranchisement law, exacerbate it.    It is questionable whether a defendant of one race will ever receive a fair trial when the judge, jury and all of the other actors of another.   What happens to the residents of Seminole County, 30% of whom are black?

We should not be surprised that Americans continue to reside in separate neighborhoods, enroll in different areas, attend different churches, and vote in the South along racial lines, we will continue to have different perspectives.  As long as one perspective is shut out or closed off, we cannot claim that “we the people” have been true to our democracy or to our concept of a fair trial under our Constitution.

Part of this separation is based on a deep and growing fear that continues to reinforce and emanate from deeper societal structures.  If I am afraid or merely unfamiliar with the racial, ethnic or religious ‘other,’ I might already believe that he or she is a threat to my life and my way of life.  Many ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws account for the subjective fears – and individual perception of danger — of the defendant.  From there, it is an easy step to believe the racial or religious ‘other’ is a danger, which Stand Your Ground laws might be used to justify avoidable homicide.

This is not to suggest that the judge or the jury is unfair under the law or malicious. What it does suggest is that the very concept of democracy requires that people who  are governed have a meaningful say in laws that will govern.   This extends to the justice system, and that the requirements of a fair trial demand justice from people who might share your life experience rather than be predisposed to see you as the problem. Long before we knew anything about unconscious, or implicit, bias, the framers of the Constitution understood this basic idea.   The need for meaningful participation in making laws and serving on juries, for both the perception and reality of fairness, were guiding principles in our Constitution.  As we move forward, we should practically embrace those principles.

Comments to “Trayvon Martin: A fair trial in the face of segregation?

  1. My son have racial profile case he does not stand chance for a fair trial is name is Robert Gee 30 from muskegon Michigan need help.

  2. Mr. Powell,

    Your piece denounces: (1) the nonparticipation of Blacks in legislation, (2) the existence of de facto segregation, (3) the existence of allegedly biased laws such as Florida’s punitive felon disenfranchisement law and Stand Your Ground laws.

    Assuming that your concern with these issues is fully justified (arguable), the Zimmerman-Martin case was NOT a suitable case to try all these broad societal issues. The reason for this is that the facts of the case simply did not fall into these issues. For example:
    – You mentioned federal diversity jurisdiction as an example of the “concern for bias.” The only detail is that the concern for bias is a protection for the defendant. The defendant in this case was Zimmerman, not Trayvon.
    – Also, your hypothetical paints whites as dominating all the legislative and judicial system and you imply that this is inherently and necessarily biased. One should remember that actually the President, the US Attorney General, the Florida Attorney General, even THE JUDGE, (and the media) were biased against Zimmerman.
    – Finally, you yourself state “This is not to suggest that the judge or the jury is unfair under the law or malicious. What it does suggest is that the very concept of democracy requires that people who are governed have a meaningful say in laws that will govern.” Sir, a court room is NOT the proper place to change laws. That is a legislative/political issue that should be sent as a bill.

    To end, one must not ignore the palpable unfairness that could have been done if what people of your line of though would have prevailed under the facts of this case. A Hispanic man’s life would have been ruined in a scapegoating exercise despite of the fact that the facts are inapplicable to the social issues at the core of your argument and that as a Hispanic, he was not even “guilty” of the historical racism that you seem to argue persists in our society.

    Dialogue should probably continue, but the Zimmerman case is simply not the appropriate venue or clearly an example of the dysfunction against which you complain.

  3. I think there is little to add to the preceding comments, and all are well spoken, even if I may disagree with some points. I too am sick and tired of ACTUAL ignorance and prejudice, and the political posturing that that certain “leaders” used to put themselves in the forefront of their “cause”. This case was used to drive a wedge between races, not seek and promote the facts regardless of race.

    Obviously, Zimmerman was an idiot to put himself and others in such a dangerous position as to have to resort to using a gun to survive. Trayvon was an idiot for trespassing and not leaving when confronted. He knew he should not have been there and should have just apologized and left. What about the parent’s role in raising him to avoid such a run in?

    The due process of law, the proceedings of the court and verdict of the jury are what Obama should have spoken to, if anything at all, and to endorse it. I am appalled that Obama depicted the “alleged crime” as racist and the verdict as unjust. I believe it was done to appease his political constituency. We need leadership not a popularity play.

    Finally, let the focus be where it will do the most good. What about the vast majority of violence against blacks being done by blacks? Has Rev. Al Sharpton done his homework and addressed the preponderance of black on black crimes? Until he and other black “leaders” do so, and help their constituency in real life, they are only making a popularity play.

  4. Posts and comments on the Berkeley Blog, the history of civilization, never-ending religious, social and cultural hatreds and 24/7/365 news reports prove that the Golden Rule cannot possibly be achieved even to save humanity.

    Can anyone prove that I am wrong?

  5. Instead of bloviating about hypotheticals, why don’t you look at the facts of THIS case? Did George Zimmerman have injuries or not? End of story. The fact that he was tried in the first place is an outrage.

  6. In the U.S., if you’re white or look white, you’ve been racist since the beginning of time or at least since 1964 and the inception of an equal opportunity law, namely Affirmative Action. The majority of white baby boomers spent their childhood after this date.

    They lived among people of all races and most never witnessed discrimination. Their parents did not instill bad thoughts nor talk bad to their children about other races. White children have NEVER based their associations and activities, on the color of their skin.

    Whites grew up putting their character and merit forward, and thoughts of their skin color were left to the opinions of those who wanted to continue to segregate themselves. In fact, white people have never had the opportunity to belong to a group that offers support for the positive promotion of a white individual, such as; for education , as administrators, as law enforcement official, lawyers, congressmen, plumbers, bus drivers, and the list goes on.

    So is it fair that affirmative action is based on the idea that white skinned and Caucasian people will NOT ever, be discriminated against?

    The law itself is quite racist, and is outlawed in several states and many universities and colleges. Wait, the government tried to stop discrimination by discriminating? Yes they did, and they still do today.

    If you’re not black, you’re white (to a percentage of blacks) and you’ve already been judged, deemed a racist, and convicted through a jury of mob mentality. Actually, I’ve been witness to this mentality many times. One time sticks out more than others.

    An elderly white lady was driving her car the right way, on a one way street. A large young black woman who could hardly turn the steering wheel, turned into the street going the wrong way and hit the elderly lady. I watched this happen. The two got out of their cars and the cops were called.

    I noticed that there were seven people who witnessed the accident, standing at the corner waiting on the bus. They just kept standing there as if they didn’t see a thing. The cops arrived and all seven went over to speak to the officers.

    Each one said the elderly white lady caused the accident, each witness said the accident was the fault of the elderly white lady who they claimed, went down the street the wrong way. I could not believe what I was hearing.

    The elderly white lady was charged with a crime. Officers took my statement however, and did not believe me because the statements of the seven people were different than mine, so mine must be a lie.

    Please note here, all seven of the people standing at the bus stop, were black.

    All seven of the people sided with the large black woman who actually broke the law. In fact, by her attitude, it seemed as if the black driver expected the seven people to side with her.

    This is a fine example of MOB mentality.

    Had the large black woman been killed by her own doing mind you, the media immediately would have claimed the elderly white lady intended to kill the large black woman with her car, because she hated blacks. Everyone already knows whites are racist ……. See ? This incident would have been a supreme candidate for racial injustice through mob, because of how easily the tables could be turned .

    Please be aware of how something so simple, can turn into a host for racial injustice when there is none to begin with.

    It is 2013, and one would have to be pretty ignorant to think we have not made any progress in race relations all these years. Today, REAL race discrimination is highly unlikely. United States has proved we have grown as one, as we see many blacks in prestigious positions of power, even a black President.

    Based on this progress, there is a growing trend among civil rights advocates, to expose the small number of racial discrimination incidents. Except, real race discrimination is hard to find these days.

    Advocates must dig around until they come up with a story that has potential , to have a large reaction in the (social) media, be offensive to a percentage of ghetto population (people with jobs can’t march), and have the ability to turn tables on a dime!

    The problem with that theory is, civil rights advocates are overlooking actual discrimination stories to invent big ones

    — BIG , as in the case of the acquitted, George Zimmerman.

    If you’re not black, you can’t possibly know anything about being discriminated against.

    — Just ask George Zimmerman.

  7. I recommend this interesting and VERY comprehensive construction of the George Zimmerman story by a South African Journalist – James Myburgh.

    A “mere snippet” reflects:

    […] In the chapter on “national delusions” in his 1852 work Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles MacKay noted how “In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first. “

    The Trayvon Martin story is a case study in how, even in the modern day, an advanced industrialized democracy can completely lose its senses; and how difficult it is for it to then recover them. In this particular matter a whole society seemingly fixed its mind on the one object of having George Zimmerman arrested, convicted and sent to jail for life, in reckless disregard of the evidence and the law.

    The mainstream media, so-called civil rights organizations, the Democrat President of the US, the US Attorney General, the Republican Governor of Florida and his Attorney General, and State Attorney Angela Corey all combined forces in an effort to destroy a single, isolated individual.

  8. The 20th century liberal arts curriculum in U.S. colleges and universities was designed with the problems of integration and social cohesiveness in mind — how can we argue about what’s important, and participate in civil society effectively, if we haven’t been exposed to roughly the same set of source materials?

    The conservatives-are-from-Mars / progressives-are-from-Earth character of the blogosphere comments regarding George Zimmerman’s crime shows just how far we have fallen from having a common set of materials — as a Bay Area progressive without a T.V. , reading these comments below is literally a head-scratcher for me. How can all this ex-post-facto innuendo coming from who knows where end up doing in death to Martin what his killer did to him to end his life? Pre-judging or post-judging the victim, who was guilty, apparently, of nothing more than walking on the street while black, has a really life- and hope- threatening tenor to it.

    There is an editorial comment by Martin Bashir that captures this pernicious aspect of rationalizing prejudice at the expense of young men’s safety here:

    • required reading for bay area progs: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324448104578618681599902640.html

      The Decline of the Civil-Rights Establishment
      Black leaders weren’t so much outraged at injustice as they were by the disregard of their own authority.
      By SHELBY STEELE

      The verdict that declared George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin was a traumatic event for America’s civil-rights establishment, and for many black elites across the media, government and academia. When you have grown used to American institutions being so intimidated by the prospect of black wrath that they invent mushy ideas like “diversity” and “inclusiveness” simply to escape that wrath, then the crisp reading of the law that the Zimmerman jury displayed comes as a shock…..

  9. I was pleased to see that there actually intelligent comments and salient points proffered in response to this obviously biased article. Anyone that did or does exert the effort to discover all the FACTS surrounding both parties and the subsequent incident, learns rather quickly what did and did not happen here.

    Zimmerman was not guilty of murder, but of self-defense and Trayvon, sadly was victim of his upbringing or lack thereof. Zimmerman had every right; as we all do to protect his home, neighborhood and ultimately life. Trayvon was not the little 16 y/o boy in the pictures, he was 17, 5’11”, 158lbs; Zimmerman was 5’7”, 140lbs. There are 17 y/o’s serving in US forces in Afghanistan that are smaller than Trayvon; yes, signed in by their parents. Trayvon had been caught at school with a screwdriver and stolen jewelry from a nearby neighborhood in his backpack; still sound like an innocent young boy?

    There is more; however, bottom line is, the jury reviewed all the evidence and even after the attempted railroad job by the FBI, DOJ, race mongers and even the judge, was found innocent of all but SELF-DEFENSE. And if there is to be such an outcry for racial “concern”; where is Sharpton and others regarding the three 15 y/o’s that beat the 13 y/o recently on the school bus? Oh, and by the way; Ann, proof read your material.

  10. “requirements of a fair trial demand justice from people who might share your life experience rather than be predisposed to see you as the problem”

    So, Charles Manson should’ve had a jury that reflected his life experience–drug-dealing manipulators? Bernie Madoff should’ve had a jury of wealthy cheats decide his case?

    If people who share your life experience are so important, why aren’t you more concerned with solving the negative social conditions in your community than the justice system that has to deal with your community’s failures after the fact?

  11. If I didn’t know better, it would seem you were talking about how the trial of Zimmerman was stacked against him. He is a Hispanic male, and the jury was all women, and not one of them Hispanic. It is amazing he was found innocent based on your theory of race and society. Zimmerman didn’t have a jury of his peers, and when even the African-American woman finds him innocent, then he must be innocent.

    Director Powell, the legislature is not going to do anything for you. It is time for the black community to stop asking whites to fix things for them. It is time for the black community to fix itself. The revolution needs to be within the black community and not without. It needs to tear down its social culture, and build up one the doesn’t paint black society as one of crime and violence.

  12. The most important cause we must fight for today is the protection of civil, voting and women’s rights for all American citizens.

    Make no mistake about it, we must act as if the future of American Democracy depends on it, and the latest SCOTUS, Congressional and 2012 republican presidential primary attacks against our rights prove we must never let down our guard.

    Will and Ariel Durant spent over 40 years researching “The Story of Civilization” and one of their paramount conclusions was:

    “When a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of a corporate life, but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the change of change.” This is a lesson of history that we ignore at our greatest peril.

  13. I come from a shitty country where sectarianism is rife and racism is commonplace.

    The message I would like to send to my american brothers and sisters is that you should not bring race or religion into court.

    A man killed a man, and should be tried and judged. Red, black, white, protestant or catholic should not matter when the verdict is reached or when the judgement is passed.

    Look beyond racist or sectarian division when making judgement and judge it as a case of a man killing a man, then make your judgements.

  14. SYG had nothing to do with the standard self-defense claims in the Zimmerman case. Contrary to your insinuation that SYG laws are racial unfair black Floridians have made about a third of the state’s total “Stand Your Ground” claims in homicide cases, a rate nearly double the black percentage of Florida’s population. The majority of those claims have been successful, a success rate that exceeds that for Florida whites.

    Go ahead continue to blame republicans, blame whites and pretend racism had anything to do with the death of Travyon Martin, however there is no evidence or facts supporting your claim. Trayvon Martin was the only one racially profiling da “creepy azz cracka”. TM chose to wait for 4 minutes until George hung up with dispatch to punish the snitch, as his cousin’s Stephen Feb 28, 2012 text tells us Trayvon “put da bangza on the cracka”.

    Read defense attorney Jeralyn Merritt’s Talk Left blog, she covered the facts and evidence in this case from the outset and made discovery docs available to any interested citizen questioning the venal media and the Martin’s family attorneys’ fabrications. Merritt does not compromise her professional ethics or integrity for her Liberal causes, she understands the framers of the Constitution never intended the criminal justice system to solve society ills. Does it spark your interest to know that the lead investigator told FBI agents that he was instructed under political pressure to edit the PCA 9 times in order to affect an arrest? The truth will continue to surface during the upcoming suits against malicious prosecutor Corey making it harder to manipulate this case for political purposes. This case is Duke La Crosse on steroids.

    This case will be studied in law schools across the nation, I wonder if any at Boalt law school will have the guts to challenge the Lies the Left is clinging to in this case. Show us a case in which prior to the completion of the trial two motions to the state’s appeals court were ruled on in favor of the defendant rights to a fair trial? Two very qualified defense attorneys with 60 plus years between them defending black clients described this case as “the bizarro case” and filed 6 motions compelling the state to comply with discovery rules and you suggest it was Travyon’s whose rights were violated? Travyon committed an aggravated assault and people nearby were too afraid to come to the aid of a man screaming for help.

    This case does present important opportunities, but I doubt the status quo will allow those issues to be addressed. Far too many youth subscribed to a set of standards contrary to civil law, it is past time to confront youth, particularly black males, that any adhering to street rules such as Snitches get Stitches and punishing disrespect with violence is self-destructive. But then you might have to admit that for the last few decades among black males identifying with gangster culture alleged acts of disrespect is a death sentence.
    Once again the Ivory Tower of Academia fails those of us living in neighborhoods hostage to gangster culture. This case was never about race, rather it exposed a serious cultural clash.

  15. This case explosed more about how the law is practiced. The law is pre-existing standard. The law should be the only standard using to measure human behavior. We should know that the court is not the law. The judge is not the law. When the court and the judge ignor the law, we loss fairness and justice.
    In this case, the juries was selected in purpose. Then, someone provided false law to the jury. Florida Statutes 782.04 Murder totally has 751 words with 98 lines. But “the law” given to the jury was 29 pages documents. It make the jury used first degree murder standard to evaluate second degree charge. Jury B29 stated “the law” she was knowledged is that the murder can be convicted only when the killing was “intentionally”. The law is not wrong. The practice of the law was wrong. Switching the law and confusing the juries was wrong.

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