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On the Zimmerman verdict and a personal encounter in Florida

Gibor Basri, professor of astronomy | July 16, 2013

Some of you know me as a professor of astrophysics, and more of you know me as UC Berkeley’s Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion. Since my photo goes with the blog, you also know that I’m older (over 60) with short grey hair, and black. I am motivated to share this story with you because of my strong reaction to the Trayvon Martin verdict. You will understand why if you read on.

I was invited this past February to deliver a public astronomy lecture at a university in Florida. The next morning was free, so I decided to go to Delray Beach. While driving my rental car along highway 1A, my wife called my cell phone. Being in no hurry, and given the busy beach traffic and many pedestrians, I elected to take the call while parked. I pulled one block off the highway into the adjoining neighborhood.

I’d been speaking for about 2 minutes when two men came out of the house I was parked in front of. They tapped on my window, and when I opened it they informed me that “This is our neighborhood.” I remarked that was pretty obvious, but its relevance puzzled me (although I was pretty sure already what it was). They then asked me what I was doing there, and I explained my reason for parking to talk to my wife. They said I should move on. I noted that was my plan as soon as the call was finished. They went back into the house.

As I pulled from the curb about five minutes later, a police car appeared behind me and pulled me over. After the usual checks he let me go, saying that he was sorry for the inconvenience but there had been squatters in the neighborhood and someone called about me. I asked him if I looked like a squatter, and he admitted that was not the case.

This took place a few months after the Trayvon Martin killing. I can’t imagine an explanation for this incident other than extraordinarily simplistic racial profiling by the white “neighbors.”

Now I’m supposed to swallow the proposition that if they had opened my car door in a threatening manner, and I knocked one of them to the pavement, that they should be free to shoot me dead without legal sanction. In retrospect the possibility of  conflict was real enough. Is this the society we (want to) live in? It wouldn’t make sense under any configuration of race, age, or gender – of the neighbors or me. But I would assert it is particularly corrosive given the history of treatment of black males in this country, and also much more likely to happen in the particular configuration I experienced.

I’m quite certain that many members of the campus community have experienced similar incidents or far worse (in many locales), and that wasn’t remotely my first experience being profiled. I hope a way is still found to hold Zimmerman accountable, and more strongly, that our society will continue its path towards a more sensible world.

Comments to “On the Zimmerman verdict and a personal encounter in Florida

  1. As a black person, I have exerienced this on a few occasions. I have also experience some more blatant. However I must point out that very, very few blacks who have experience this kind of ethnic harrassment had actually been subject to the ‘N’ word or other outwardly blatant ethnic epitaphs that every one considers ‘racial’.

    Sorry but it doesn’t work that way. Ethnic supremacy has grown past that It has gotten much more sophisticated, blending itself into normal use of the language. These days, supremacy hides out in innuendos, like he’s wearing a hoodie and he looks suspicous. To the non-supremacist, there is nothing unusual here but to the supremacist, this is a black person. The professor’s experience is not atypical, it is rather normal. But notice, no reference was ever made to the ethnicity, even when the police were notified. However, the innocuous, ‘some guy is sitting in my driveway. He doesn’t BELONG in this neighborhood, says loud and clear, there’s a black guy hanging out around here.

    Prejudice is no longer hurtful words, it now innuendos, stereotypes, facial expressions, body language and vocal inflections. You have to now be an interpreter who understand both what a bigot is and does. Minorities, which includes women, see this more readily than the people who harbor these feelings. That’s the way it usually is.

    • Innuendos? Looks? I once was talking to two Jewish guys one of whom asked whether i read some New York Times article. The other one knowing i was part German quipped “he probably thinks it is the Jew York Times.” They laughed at my alleged racism. How is that for innuedndo? Guess what, life sucks and people are mean, so get over it.

  2. In case you DIDN’T know, the NAACP is NOT an all black organization. it is open to anyone who is like minded.

    As for defending yourself, you are not defending yourself if you instigate a retaliation. Defending yourself occurs when through no fault of your own you are attacked by another person.

    While following some is not illegal, there are consequences. You do not have the right NOT to be confronted for doing so.

    In Zimmerman’s case, there is no one and no evidence that supports his version of event and there is no evidence against his story. However for unspoken reason, he’s story was taken as the truth but no explanation was given as to why.

    Unless you are a minority, in particular black, you have no idea how skin color influences decision and perceptions. Blacks specifically, see almost hourly decisions made against them that are made for whites, in particular, who exhibit the EXACT same negatives used against blacks.

    Again, you have to be on the receiving end to understand how ethnicity is so pervasive in our society. Fortunately, more and more people are having great difficulty using skin color in their decision making process.

    But make no mistake, the NAACP is NOT, by ay stretch of the imagination, a blacks only organization.

    • While following some is not illegal, there are consequences. You do not have the right NOT to be confronted for doing so.

      I take it by “confronted” you mean “beaten up”?

  3. Martin said to his friend on the phone that he was being followed by a creepy guy (in retrospect perhaps a very accurate conclusion).

    No, he said “cracker” not “guy” – don’t lie

  4. Why do racial issues keep getting compared to the Zimmerman case?
    Extremely puzzling!

    With all evidence showing that Zimmerman was not racist toward blacks by any stretch of the imagination (the evidence shows the exact opposite in fact with his benevolence toward blacks) and his only remark about race being in response to the 911 dispatcher asking for a racial description and giving choices for him to reply with, I don’t get the connection at all.

    Of course racial profiling happens. Who in their right mind questions that? But what on earth does it have to do with this case!?

    Intellectual dishonesty.

    • Racism or ethnic supremacy as it actually is, is not always in the concrete words, one does not need to use specific terms such as the N word. it can also be exhibited using stereotypes such as “he looks like he’s on drugs or something’ To many this allows one to be a supremacist without outwardly appearing to be. this is also recognized by supremacists as a reference to black people.

      This makes it easy to say ‘I, he, she wasn’t referring to ethnicity.’

      Before I go farther I must point out one thing that many, if not everyone, is not realizing. The English language, especially the America version is the most versatile language in the world. Using the same sentence a person can mean at least two completely different things. For example, “Boy, that girl is hot!” can mean that girl is hot because of the external temperature, she is hot because she’s running a fever, she’s pretty, or she’s angry. That girl, hearing that can consider it sexist and offensive, even though the comment may have been referring to the external temperature and she was obviously suffering from the heat.

      The point is, in English, who is saying what dictates the mental state behind it. What supremacists consider non-stereotypical equalists (those who believe in quality for all), know to be just the opposite.

      Zimmerman profiled Martin by making statements he, purposely, attributed to a certain ethnicity. Sure he could have been talking about anyone, until you consider the entirety of what he said. “looking suspicious, on drugs or something, we’ve had breakins”. He’s not talking an unknown person, he’s talking to a dispatcher he’s contacted before, the codes have been established already.

      Supremacists enjoy the thought that people think they are simple but in reality, their’s is a complex set of innuendos, words and actions. All of which Zimmerman knew of and how to use.

      No one has considered the fact that Martin was LIVING in the community and thus had a reason to be there. As the neighborhood watch, don’t you think Zimmerman would have seen him at least once? Even if you answer is no, a simple question that even police officers ask wasn’t even considered. That being “‘Do you live around here?” The answer, more acceptable and not intimidating would readily bring:” Yes, I stay there.” End of incident. Except the question was “what are you doing here.” An accusatory question ripe with suspicion.

      There is a lot going on here and the simplicity people are expecting just flat out doesn’t exist. Try as you might, each ‘simple’ statement you make, can easily be shown that it is simply a supremacist’s point of view statement that is essentially saying, “he’s black, he was up to no good, his life doesn’t matter.”

      That’s what this hubbub is all about. The subtle nuances of ethnic supremacy. Another door is closing, slowly, but closing on this notion of ethnic supremacy. And it should.

  5. I am amazed at the willful blindness of white Americans who simply deny the existence of racial profiling. Isn’t this professor’s shocking story alone undeniable evidence that racial profiling is alive and real?

    Of course the racial profiling goes on in both directions — victims are bound to regard those associated with bullies as likely enemies — but the vastly larger balance of power lies in the hands of whites; thus, minorities suffer far more wrenching injustices as a result of racial profiling than whites do.

    I feel certain that most Americans would be filled with dread if they woke up one morning to find that, from then on, they would suffer what black Americans have endured and black Americans would assume their place as the dominant force in our society. Deep down, we all know that systematic racial bullying and injustice goes on day and night in our “land of the free.” It’s called scapegoating, pal.

  6. I appreciated Prof. Basri’s post, a rather striking recounting of a person being vaguely threatened and having the police called on them for talking on the phone in a parked car while being apparently the wrong color. It’s a helpful reminder of the frequency of racial profiling, and helps us to relate personally via his experience and to reflect on the tragedy of Martin’s murder and the circumstances that led to it.

    But I’m horrified by the comments I’m reading. Comments like “we need George Zimmerman in every neighborhood” and “Martin got what he deserved” (from the first two comments that appear under the story as I read it today) are a chilling, scary reminder of how much racism persists and the work that we as a society still need to do. I find it hard to believe that people would write things like this in 2013.

    There has been a lot of character assassination of the young Martin, which I find very questionable (I was not an angel when I was a teenager and I suspect many of you reading this were not either), but the bottom line is that he was a minor and completely innocent of any crime as he walked home that fateful night minding his own business. He is dead because Zimmerman, an adult who should have known better, inaccurately profiled him as a criminal and provoked an ill-advised confrontation that led to a fight and to Zimmerman shooting Martin.

    That does not sound like a practical definition of standing your ground to me, it sounds like manslaughter (at the least). John Burris, the civil rights lawyer who represented Oscar Grant’s family, commented on “Forum” that this case should have been tried as such. Zimmerman was found not guilty of 2nd degree murder, but I believe he is clearly guilty of instigating the confrontation.

    Martin said to his friend on the phone that he was being followed by a creepy guy (in retrospect perhaps a very accurate conclusion). Zimmerman followed him in a car, then pursued him on foot, and never identified himself as a neighborhood watch volunteer. That is threatening. Perhaps Martin should be remembered as the one who ‘stood his ground’. But he is dead, and witnesses’ testimony varies, so we may never know exactly what happened.

    There is plenty of space for discussion of the nuances of this case by well-intentioned people. But the rash comments below are a window onto the demons of bigotry that still color the judgment of some people, perhaps more people than we would like to admit. These comments are a wake-up call. We as a country have a lot of work to do.

  7. Because I am an American, I need to apologize for the last few comments. But it proves that racism is alive and kicking. We make it a game…a joke to devalue human life. Mr Zimmerman was larger than Travon. How did he get bested? Did he have no martial arts skills? Travon would not have killed him. He wanted to subdue him…knock him out maybe. He too felt a threat. Why did he not report he had a gun? Why did he choose to kill instead of mame? He held the gun tight against his chest and shot him in the heart…Fatal. He could have shot him in the leg, etc. But then when he was dead…he jumps on top of him and decided to be a hero. And America…not just Florida has made him a hero for killing a boy.

    I am appalled by your comments. You scare me. And where do you get your numbers. “3% of the population comments 80% on the crime” Now that’s profiling. And calling the kid a “thug” makes you a racist. When I arrive in your neighborhood dressed in my suit and tie…am I a thug? According to you, I am. We are all criminals…Right! And you are all racist…Right?

    I am 57 years old, with no criminal activity. But I have been detained 44 times for being in the wrong neighborhood. Once 3 times in a week…by the same cop. I was in my own neighborhood…near my own house.

    Wake up, America. You are killing yourself. Don’t blame it on African people. Take responsibility for your actions. You built it this way (with the help of Africans). Now you are trying to destroy the evidence…one black kid at a time.

  8. Thanks for sharing your experience, especially as an EDUCATED PROFESSIONAL Black male. As a mother of a 10 year old African American boy, it hurts my heart that I have to have a conversation with my son about being a black man in America and all the ignorance and racism he will encounter at some point in his life (regardless of his background).

    This case along with some of the comments just shows how much work is needed in this country. It also shows how ignorant and insensitive people are. My son is taught to love everyone regardless of their skin tone, however he also is being taught that he will be feared just because of the color of his skin. Until someone has walked in your shoes, they really can’t speak to the experience.

  9. We need George Zimmerman in every neighborhood. This whole narrative has shown how obnoxious so called black leaders are. We are to believe that Mr. zimmerman was to sit and suffer grievous injury or death? If anything he was, as a “creepy cracker” the one attacked. He was a victim of a hate crime notwithstanding the mislabeling him as a “white” man that was so eagerly seized on by the MSM.

    Did he follow Marrtn because Martin was black? Probably but that’s not a crime but a reflection of the fact that young black males (about 3 percent of the population) is responsible for 80 percent of crime. No one follows Koreans in hoodies – why? But it’s easier to lie and pimp America than look in the mirror. Anyone remember what the so called moral authorities of the black community did to Bill Cosby when he spoke out? We are on a road to Zimbabwe folks – i hope you enjoy it

  10. Trayvon was a thug who ATTACKED someone. He got what he deserved. His skin color was not a factor. Zimmerman is NOT a racist. This was a case of simple self defense. The world is better off without that criminal!

  11. lets make some things very clear…
    “Zimmerman has been held *accountable* in a court of law and found not guilty of any crime” complaining about this or calling for “justice” simply means you don’t believe “the rule of law” applies…

    I notice that “black on black” assaults and murders all across the country have no such “calls for justice” so it appears as long as the assailant is “black” it’s “ok” to kill black people…

    Are there racists ? positively… Are there racists of all colors of skin? positively…

    Now… to the real issue at hand “stand your ground laws”

    These are moronic…
    Should I have to run from my house when someone bashes down the door? NO…

    Should I do the prudent thing and avoid a confrontation? ya…

    If I see someone doing something suspicious should I get my gun and follow them? no… should I call 911 and then ignore the suggestions of the operator to not engage? probably…

    Alas…. even this article comments about COLOR and RACE… not LAW and COMMON SENSE…. so goes florida…

  12. I don’t understand why we, Americans, have to wait for a tragic event like this before we take to the streets and chant “enough is enough”. Aren’t all children from all races worth saving and fighting for and not just Trevon Martin?

    Many teens are getting killed every day by their race on the streets of Chicago and yet no one cares to organize a protest to stop the killing and get to the root cause of the problem. Political parties (democrats, republicans and the NAACP) use race as the problem because it serves them well in their political agendas and not because they “care”.

    It is time to come together as a society to think of a solution to get our children off the streets and put them in the classrooms where they belong. Education tramps out ignorance and a world that is ignorant-free is a color-blind world.

  13. I am sorry you had this experience but thankful you shared it with our University community to remind people that racism is well and alive in our society. Igoring racism does not mean it does not exist – the truth will never die.

    I hear you, about 20 years ago, when I immigrated to the US from Africa, I had a similar experience when I was learning how to drive at a “white” neighborhood in Modesto, CA. Someone called the police, my brother and I were surrounded by police (four), searched and questioned for a long time. They never found anything illegal on us and yes, I had a learner’s permit. I will blog the whole story some other time.

    Because something is done within the law like racial profiling, it does not make it right. My heart goes to Trayvon’s parents and I keep them in my prayers!

  14. The national discussions surrounding Trayvon Martin case have unfortunately focused on the culpability and the motivations of the parties involved. The stand your ground law is in my mind the real culprit. Given my understanding of the law and the jury instructions, the jury would have violated their duty had they chosen a different verdict.

    A law that gives the benefit of the doubt to an assailant is bad idea in any circumstances. Given the fact that racism is the ubiquitous subtext of American culture, it is a prescription for terror and mayhem. Events like the Oscar Grant killing, the Amadou Diallo case, the Rodney King case indicate the potential racist consequences of the “stand your ground” law. Every one of us can easily compile a list of similar cases off the top of their head. If you doubt that legally sanctioned violence is racist in its application, just try to compile a similar list of Euro-American victims.

    In the next few years there are bound to be cases where an Afro-American, Native-American, Arab or Homosexual will shoot an Euro-American. They will invoke stand your ground laws in their defense. Then the racist consequences of this law will be apparent to all.

  15. I found your experience very interesting. I’m not sure HOW I would have responded; I would definitely NOT have tapped on your window. But, if there had been any types of problems in my neighborhood from recent kid break-ins to a murder to a series of store robberies or what-not, I guess I would be more “alert”

    However, their term “squatter” is really the bad part – don’t squatters usually occupy empty property??? Sitting in your OWN car on the phone doesn’t even equate to a squatter… I would probably have phoned the police IF you stayed in front of my house for a very extended period and were eyeing it irregularly in any manner. Sorry you experienced this in the Sunshine State.

  16. Thanks for your post. If only race didn’t matter, Trayvon Martin never would have been followed, and you wouldn’t have been approached by white citizens who were possibly feeling threatened by your presence, and then subsequently you wouldn’t have been stopped by the police.

    As a widowed African-American mother of three sons who grew up in a multicultural circle of friends here in the San Ramon Valley, I’ve had to have conversations about “driving while black” and other admonitions to prepare them for living in a world where your color/race often trumps who you are as a person. I shudder to think of what my son who moved to Florida a few years ago has to endure. Just this month he moved to Delray Beach, the sight of your unfortunate encounter.

    I hope that civil discourse about race in the real world will lead us to greater understanding without defensiveness, excuses or denial.

  17. The comments to this article are absolutely mind boggling. Professor Basari is not some teenager wearing a hooded sweatshirt. He is a 60 year old man, parked, assumably, in a new modeled car, talking on the phone. Under what basis could he be considered a threat to the neighborhood to warrant the confrontation by two white guys? That is the issue folks, not the false narratives that some here try to present.

  18. My blood boils every time I hear someone say the words “different races” or when they say they are “bi-racial.” There is ONE race, the HUMAN race. Race is a socio-political construct that does not have anything to do with biology.

    While I deter from my main point; many of you believe that the Trayvon Martin case has nothing to do with racial profiling. You believe George Zimmerman was acquitted of manslaughter (“rightfully”) because of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.

    Nothing else to it, except, and this is a big except, an African-American woman was sentenced just this March to 20 years after having fired a WARNING shot into her wall to scare her husband off. Her husband had tried to strangle her and had told her that he would kill her. She used the gun to protect herself from him and no one was harmed, I repeat, she did not fire it towards anyone. That woman used the same defense as George Zimmerman did but while he is free, she is doing 20 years for aggravated assault. Twelve minutes of deliberation. Twelve minutes; that is how long the jury believed that 20 years of her life was worth. If that woman’s skin was a different shade, she would be with her children right now–not behind jail bars.

    People want to believe that we live in a world free of racism. That is not the case. It is of no service to our society when we turn a blind eye against real issues, problems do not fix themselves, they worsen. Let’s all acknowledge that this case was about skin color and racial prejudices.

  19. My question for Mr Bastion is this; are you saying your experience is equal to Trayvon Martin’s, of coarse minus the violence and death?
    If so, then I would consider the fact you are not dead and then ask the question; why are you not dead?
    If not, then I would ask why compare apples and oranges? you make no point in this comparison.
    For the record I am NOT a supporter of any “side” in the Zimmerman case.


    • Dear Mr. Kapellas,

      After reading your post, I felt compelled to reply. I think perhaps the inaccurate, albeit very common, saying about apples and oranges that you referenced in your message holds more relevance to Prof. Basri’s post than noted.

      I believe you wanted to say that the two situations are like apples and oranges in that they are completely different things and cannot be fairly compared. However, may I respectfully remind you that both apples and oranges happen to be fruits? They are not completely different things. While they have their differences – different flavors and different appearances they are, in their most basic definition, the same.

      Now, segue to the situation at hand. Much like the relationship apples and oranges share, Prof. Basri’s experience is the apple to Trayvon Martin’s orange. While the situations are different in some ways, they are essentially of the same kind. True, Prof. Basri did not experience violence and death – but he did experience actions based on racial prejudice.

      Furthermore, if you look closely Prof. Basri never said that he believed his situation to be equivalent to Trayvon’s. What he did was pose a hypothetical question, a “what if” if you will. I think perhaps (this is my own reading of the post) what was most striking for Prof. Basri was how uncomfortably close he could have been to experiencing an “orange” situation instead of an “apple” situation. That perhaps, if a few things had been different – if he had said the wrong thing, if he had been wearing different clothes, if he had been a pomme fruit instead of a citrus fruit…he would not have had the opportunity to write this post.


      • This explanation is cute. I appreciate the creative notion to take apples and oranges, a common saying in the English language to represent an unequal comparison, and run with it.
        There is only one fact here, both said gentlemen were black, no other connection at all. Both experiences completely different. This post holds no weight, no evidence of any kind, except of an individual experience. It is a shame Mr. Bastion experienced this but I see no tie between him and Trayvon. (Whoops, they also were both were in Florida. I’m assuming in two different places.)

        Less respect due to sarcastic tone…

        • Mr. Kapellas,
          When you say “There is only one fact here,” you are mistaken. There are at least two. One fact is that Prof. Basri (not Mr. Bastion–a little respect, here?) is black; another fact is that the men who approached his car to find out what he was doing in their neighborhood were white. This pair of facts, when acknowledged, raises Prof. Basri’s experience and your reaction to his account from the realm of “personal” to the realm of cultural. Racism is so deeply embedded in this country that only the most rabid are called racists; the rest of us get a free pass.

  20. Equity and inclusion. Isn’t that code for preferential treatment for some? And isn’t that racial profiling? Just asking.

    • I guess we kind of forget that white people had preferential treatment for over 200 years. Do you call that racial profiling? Just answering.

  21. Thank you for sharing your story. I have two sons and a daughter. I can tell you first hand that boys in their late teens don’t always exercise the best judgement when faced with a fearful situation. They should be able to learn from their mistakes, not die from them. Just a few words from George Zimmerman would have avoided this whole tragedy. So sad.

  22. I appreciate the article and wish more stories were told to make sure that others get a chance to hear from African-American males about what goes on in their lives and how they are interacted with on a daily basis.

    Perspective: Subjective evaluation of relative significance; a point of view. The perspectives from all who have written in response to the original article are clearly seen upon reading each rebuttal. The relative significance of each individual’s viewpoint is where we differ. My perspective has educated me in a manner that let’s me know that males who tend to be of a certain background (black males) are treated aggressively in their own culture as well as the larger culture, which is detrimental to our society and future on a whole.

    How you view the world is built upon your experiences, but keep in my your view is not the only one. No one can see the world through your eyes, but hopefully their viewpoints can be heard and recognized.

  23. As minorities, we just have to get used to it. It has happened all my life (58 years) and my parents lives and probably yours too. Sometimes it’s easy to identify and you become immediately defensive. The tougher situations are when you don’t even realize it’s happening to you. Thanks for your story.

  24. I still don’t understand why Trayvon just didn’t keep walking to his father’s girlfriend’s house, open the door and walk in. If he would have just done that he would be alive today.

    Many times I feel like people are following me (I am a woman in my mid 50’s) and I don’t stop and converse with them or punch them in the nose and bang their head on the sidewalk. I just move faster to get to my destination.

    Trayvon’s actions do not make sense to me. While George Zimmerman’s action as a person who is on duty for a Neighborhood Watch does make sense. It is HIS neighborhood and he was on duty. When people live in a neighborhood they know most of the people there. They will protect each other and watch out for each other. At least that is what it is like in all of the neighborhoods that I’ve ever lived in. Since there were numerous break ins, Zimmerman was just doing what he was suppose to be doing on his community watch. I believe that clearly there wasn’t an open dialog between these two people.

    I don’t believe that Zimmerman was following Trayvon with his gun out ready to kill as some people seem to think. I think that Trayvon for whatever reason decided he didn’t like Zimmerman following him and turned and punched him in the nose. Maybe subconsciously Trayvon wanted to be in trouble in some way because punching someone in the nose, knocking them to the ground and banging their head on the sidewalk is a crime. So many people have not even acknowledged that Trayvon was causing a crime of assault with battery on Zimmerman.

    If someone punched me in the nose, had me on the ground and was banging my head, I would definitely be in complete fear for my life because I don’t know that other person. I don’t know if that person is whacked out on drugs, I don’t know if that person just murdered someone, I don’t know what that person is capable of. I only know that he is beating me and is not stopping.

    One time my ex-fiance was in a bar and a guy comes in and starts yanking this woman around. My fiance decides to go and help her and gets head butted in the nose which in turn others in the bar decide to subdue this guy. When the police came, we found out this guy was wanted in another state for murder and was harassing his ex-wife. So really no one knows when people are acting weird what they could be capable of doing.

    When you don’t know the other person, you really don’t know what they are capable of doing, especially, if they get violent. George Zimmerman didn’t know anything about Trayvon, he didn’t know how old he was, what he was capable of doing when he was beating on him. He only feared for his life and made the decision to protect himself. When you have 1/100th of second to make a decision between what you think is a life and death situation for yourself, you just protect yourself. I feel that is what George Zimmerman did.

    Everyone is going to look at this case differently because of their own life experiences. I am a petite woman, so of course I would not be able to protect myself against another person. So I am going to look at this situation differently than a man who is 200 or 300 lbs. and can protect themselves.

    This crime was blown out of proportion. Women are raped, beaten and killed every day and those cases don’t get this type of media attention. You know why? Because it’s the big organizations like the NAACP that make a big deal out of it. There are women’s organizations out there but those organizations don’t have the power like the NAACP, because women have the least amount of power in American society. I am bi-racial and I think that there is a big racist movement against bi-racials. I have felt it for over 50 years (yes, I am in my mid 50’s). I feel the NAACP is trying to force their power on American Society. If everyone truly wants to be equal then why is there a Miss Black USA pageant? The Miss USA pageant allows all races to complete but the Miss Black USA pageant discriminates. I think the NAACP needs to look at themselves before they throw the race card out there. It takes racists to know one.

    So now that the trial is over I live in fear. I live in fear that the black community in which I live might decide to take the decision out on me. I live 15 minutes away from Oakland, CA. I live in a mixed race community where everyone is friendly to each other. Will attitudes change because the media and the NAACP and even our own President has blown it out of proportion and corrupted the minds of people through the media? This needs to stop.

    • “When you don’t know the other person, you really don’t know what they are capable of doing, especially, if they get violent. George Zimmerman didn’t know anything about Trayvon, he didn’t know how old he was, what he was capable of doing when he was beating on him. He only feared for his life and made the decision to protect himself. When you have 1/100th of second to make a decision between what you think is a life and death situation for yourself, you just protect yourself. I feel that is what George Zimmerman did.”

      Replace “Zimmerman” with “Trayvon Martin”. Now read your paragraph again. Anything? Any glimmer of understanding? No, I thought not…

    • Kay,
      I usually don’t respond to articles but your comment really upset me. How dare you accuse the victim. Can you be sure if he had kept walking Zimmerman would have done nothing? You mentioned rape, should we also blame a woman with a short skirt of attracting a rapist? Does Trayvon not have the same stand your ground law apply to him. If you recall, he was profiled and followed. Against the 911 operator’s directive. Zimmerman knew there was at least 1 gun in this confrontation. He knew despite any perceived difference in stature or fighting skill he possessed the great equalizer. Would he have reacted in the same manner had he not been armed? He was in a town watch…key word is watch.

      In this instance Zimmerman was acting weird. Tayvon was walking through a neighborhood. Still legal in the US. Zimmerman stalked him.

      As you mentioned you are a petite woman therefor the circumstances are completely different. You should seek safety.

      Blowing it out of proportion? Do you have children or want some one day? A child’s life was taken. Try to put yourself in his parent’s shoes. I wonder if you would think it was too big of a deal then. The NAACP exists because of the injustice that has existed in America since it was founded against black people. It is still needed. You seem to have an ax to grind with the NAACP. You’ve chosen the wrong occasion to pick a fight. They are spot on this time. I have experience racial profiling, its quite obvious you have not. If you had, your view of this matter would be drastically different.

      Attitudes may change if your irrational views are made known.

    • Your interpretation of the events of that night seem to leave out several very important facts:
      1) Trayvon’s father lived in that neighborhood and so it was HIS neighborhood as well. You seem to intimate that he was somehow an interloper that had encroached upon Mr. Zimmerman’s “rightful” territory, when in fact he did belong there are had a perfectly legitimate reason for being in the neighborhood.
      2) Trayvon Martin was walking home from the store. I am not quite sure what about those “actions” do not make sense to you, walking? While you seem to think that getting out of your car and following people is perfectly normal, it is not–especially if the police tell you not to.
      3) Being Black while walking is not a crime and, therefore, is not a reason for surveillance and certainly not punishable by death.
      4) While I appreciate the long narratives about murderers in bars and rapists they have nothing to do with the young man who was walking down the street minding his own business before he was murdered. Just because some people do bad things that does not give us the right to extrapolate those behaviors and project them onto another person because they make us uncomfortable.
      5) Trayvon Martin also had the right to defend himself if he felt threatened, and why wouldn’t he when a strange man was following him home. Black people also have the right to defend ourselves, it is not just a law to be used against us.

      Anytime a person is murdered, especially a child, it should be taken seriously. The fact that one case gets attention and another does not does not lessen the import of any life. Your statement that the senseless murder of a child was “blown out of proportion” was an unfortunate choice of words that does not reflect well on you. While everyone has a particular perspective based on their experiences, it is our ability to empathize with another, even if they are different from us, that makes us human.

    • Kay,

      Thank you for your very reasonable response. I have not been living in the country, so I thankfully missed most of the horrible media coverage. I did however watch the trial, because one of my current research projects is the intersection of class and race. I have been frustrated talking to others about this case; I feel like I am having parrellel conversations one is based entirely on the disgraceful media coverage and the other on the facts of the case. Don’t be discouraged or feel alone.

      Everyone keeps saying the black male is dehumanized, and that is racism. I personally can’t identify with Trayvon. Not because I wasn’t troubled, often suspended (eventually dropped out), drug-using teen, but I never assaulted anyone. The idea of attacking someone is just incomprehensible to me, and that is why I can’t be Trayvon. Not because he is black.

      One question I keep coming back to is, to what extent non-blacks have a responsibility to the color blind society. If we take Mr. Martin for example. He is black (12% of the population), male (6%), in the crime prone years (3%). His race, gender and age group commits over half the violent crime in the US yet consists of 3% of the population. It isn’t fair to be profiled and it creates a vicious circle, but everyone is judged by their appearances, age, gender, race that is life. As much as everyone wants to be an idividual, we are nothing without a group. How the black community responds to this I think will be the ultimate consequence of the incident.

      Excuse any typos (iPhone)

  25. What bothers me is how much the complaint of George Zimmerman getting off is being laid at the feet of prejudice. I’d say that having a father who was a magistrate of the Virginia Supreme Court was a large part of it. Do you think George Zimmerman’s haircut and injuries were caused by Trayvon Martin. I don’t think so. I think George went home and got a hair cut and a few picks and pinches and perhaps a fist to the face. Because when it comes down to it, it’s better to be a little roughed up and be carefully coached to lie than to go to prison for the rest of your life (or ten years, whichever comes first).

  26. Dear Professor Basri: The story you relate is painful. What’s worse is how common it seems to be judging from your report and those of so many others. Sometimes I fear large segments of the American public are among the most ignorant and fearful people in the world. I want however to raise an aspect of the Zimmerman case that as a lawyer I find very troubling in its all-too evidently widespread aspects.

    In short, Zimmerman’s guilt under Florida law is simply not clear enough for a guilty verdict. Virtually none of the millions of Americans who have strong feelings about this case have any first-hand knowledge of Zimmerman or Martin or what actually transpired between them.

    For so many to have so quickly and loudly condemned Zimmerman within moments of the verdict, knowing nothing more than what the media has orchestrated seems to me hysterically prejudicial and profoundly ignorant in its own right. To so quickly condemn a unanimous jury verdict is to plainly imply the judge, prosecutors and jurors were biased against Trayvon Martin for some reason. What’s the reason? Because he’s black? I doubt it in this instance. Why? Because the proofs of his guilt are unclear? The unthinking implication in the minds of so many that the court is racially biased is hurtful to those who struggle day in and day out to administer justice fairly on behalf of everyone. Sometimes the proof of guilt simply isn’t there.

    What the NAACP and others ought to be doing, rather than trying to burn a witch named Zimmerman, is thank the Florida courts for taking on and trying a difficult case, respectfully disagreeing but deferring to the jury’s judgment on a doubtful set of facts (thus affording Zimmerman the benefit of doubt to which he is entitled), and then marshaling the electorate to undue the self-defense gun law in Florida.

  27. For those who think that Dr. Basri was not racially profiled, please replace him with a young blond woman and ask whether the same scenario seems likely. Racial profiling is ubiquitous; it is concomitant violence that is the most chilling problem.

    The men’s behavior was hostile and ugly, but the point of the piece was that, having made such an approach, these folk could have threatened their victim, perhaps provoked a defensive response, and shot him, had they had a gun. The lives of men of color are at greater risk because people are more likely to view them with great suspicion and to use force against them. The ambiguity of the law is implicated in its implicit acceptance of violence as a solution.

    This is a many-layered problem but it would not be so pressing if it were not for the role of the gun in contemporary American society; I think it will take many decades to address the social problem of racial profiling but we can continue the fight for legislating gun ownership and usage and hope to see results in the short term.

  28. It’s hard to express the confusion that comes with this kind of verdict, and I am glad I read this. It was a life, and people keep forgetting that. He did not have to die.

  29. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. It is heartbreaking to read, and even worse is knowing that it’s not the only time by far. It highlights so well how innocuous behavior – even safe behavior! – could easily turn violent. A few seconds, a word or two one way or the other, and tragedy can result.

    Living my life in mixed race environments, I have never been able to understand how such malicious ignorance can proliferate. The frequent excuse that it’s ignorance based in their background just doesn’t wash with me – they have TV sets. This isn’t 1850, for heaven’s sake, and it’s simply not okay.

  30. Without wanting to dispute the inferences you imply in your story, having visited the South and knowing your report sounds about right, let it be said that racism is a two way street, and it is scarcely the case that every white person lives a breezy life devoid of racial discrimination. Some of us learn the same way minorities do, in the ghettos and streets, and some of us are your graduates.

    When in the early 1990s the California economy lost (according to the Kevin Starr’s estimate) 30% of its budget due to military cutbacks after the Cold War, I found out just how useless my music Ph.D. from Berkeley was going to prove, and had to find cheaper living quarters and get a day job. I took up cab driving and eventually got my own medallion.

    Along the way I have had a belly full of racism slung at regular white male me and it gets tedious reading the rehearsals of the problems we know about without advances in perception of things that don’t get remarked. In 1990s while suing my Chinese landlord for abuses like a radiator hose for a kitchen L and conditions of serious sabotage in the building, I was shot in the left arm in a drive-by while carrying my laundry across the street to my apartment. The police allowed no connection between the suit and the shooting, but I clearly saw it was a car full of Chinese boys who did it; I saw the very boy who shot me; who else would have wanted me to get such a “warning?”

    This was on Nob Hill, where white people supposedly reign in august ease. Let me tell you there is no racial solidarity among whites in California, rich whites here are just as callous and glib to poor whites as they are to blacks or anybody else.

    About that same time I got a letter from Chancellor Tien asking for a donation to his special scholarship fund, and every recipient kid in the photo was from a racial minority: the smallest donation suggested was $1000. Check it out if you think I’m making this up. I could barely make the rent, was the victim of Tong punks, and Tien was hitting me up as though I were a Google exec.

    Moving to the Mission I lived as the only white guy in what turned out to be a crack and prostitution house at 18th and Capp. I called the cops so often that eventually they occasionally called me to let me know what was up, like who was a cop carrying a gun outside my front door. I can swear this to Congress. Here it was Hispanics who struck me with their fists, threw things at me, pounded on my door when I tried to practice singing, repeatedly broke the windows of my auto, and called me the “Berkeley Fucker” through the wall as they walked by in the hall. When I tried to appeal to them by putting copies of the recognitions I have gotten from Mexican townships these were removed and did no apparent good.

    The day my life was threatened most directly it took the Mission police 59 minutes to get car 433 three blocks from the station to my door; the hoodlums had stood under my window all 58 minutes.

    Sabotage reigned there too and the cops carried users out strung on poles like cattle, they were so out of it. I was VERY openly hated for trying to help clean the building and the neighborhood up. It’s OK if you’re in a minority trying to clean up a ghetto, that’s cool, but if you’re white and do that you are going to be treated as a pariah. They never once even pretended there was any racism in me – their hatred was unabashed.

    I requested and got a restraining order against the crack dealer; before the hearing, a woman made a complaint against the female judge, saying she was incompetent and guilty of profiling; as if to prove this, the judge seemed ready to deny my petition until I mentioned that it was also the crack dealer’s female partner who had threatened my life. At the suggestion that a female might be breaking the law the lady judge said “This is serious,” and slammed the gavel down in my favor. But only then. Sexism amidst racism – and this time from a different racial sector than on Nob Hill.

    Just a few relevant moments in the life of one of your graduates who wishes we would not be limited to the same old scripts about whites leaning on blacks: it’s just more profiling. The problem really is deep enough that we have to look both ways.

    Meanwhile my Ph.D. from Cal, where I chose a black professor as my dissertation adviser, has never gotten me a job. What about that – might it not be possible that white America was just so underwhelmed with my degree because I studied with a black professor? I wish you would look a little deeper, not all of the people suffering from racism are in racial minorities. And I didn’t have to go to the South to experience any of this.

  31. Being a Caucasian woman I will never fully understand the trials of those who deal with racism. Having siblings who are of mixed ethnicity, as well as my husband and daughter I can say this. I have held their hands when society has turned their back on them, when they have had to deal with intolerance from the ignorant. That I believe is the real issue.

    Yes, what happened to Trayvon Martin is beyond tragedy and in my eyes like many others I believe the case against Zimmerman was not dealt with properly. I do not feel that justice was served.

    But look what this situation has created. How many of us can say the last time we saw people from all races coming together the way that they have over the past week? It is an inspiration.

    Although my heart breaks for Trayvon’s parents I know in some way good will came from this situation. This may be the catalyst needed for the change that should have happened decades ago. We are all equal. No matter your skin color. The sooner we realize this and learn to love each other for our differences the sooner we will be able to evolve.

    • You have echoed my sentiments exquisitely. I think there is still good that come out of all this. A fresh dialogue has been opened on race and our criminal injustice system. I hope for the best and only fear apathy and acquiescence.

  32. I’m very sorry you experienced such a lack of hospitality and what frankly sounds like a very thinly-veiled aggressive act by those two men.

    This story struck a chord with me. Growing up, my dad hated having cars in front of the house that aren’t from the neighborhood (he grew up in a country that’s quite a bit scarier than this one) and often would go ask “dalliers” (his word) what they were doing there. I’ve seen him do it to a lot of people of many colors and from my perspective it never occurred to me that any of them would assume their race was the reason he was asking what they were doing.

    I’m not sure what you were trying to accomplish in your conversation with the officer, but where I come from, questions in the vein of “Do I look like a __________?” are often construed as aggressive by police; “Yes sir, no sir” tends to make them go away quicker.

    Again, very sorry you were put in this position.

  33. Sorry for your experience. I could share my own, but I won’t here. Racism happens to people of all colors, and is perpetrated by people of all colors. Regarding the case, it is time for the country to move on. Peace.

  34. Professor, I am sorry you had this experience, but you were doing much better than many white people in black neighbourhoods. Please read and ponder this link. –

  35. There is no question that bad judgments on both Zimmerman’s and Martin’s part led to a tragedy that was entirely unnecessary. The underlying issue however continues to be a pervasive racism that still exists throughout society. I had the privilege of serving as an aide to a US Air Force three star general. He was the youngest 3 star in the history of the Air Force and the most brilliant man that I have ever had the pleasure to spend a lot of time with.

    He was also Black. I am White. I was literally his servant, which is what a military aide really is, although we call ourselves “horse holders.” There were many incidents where we were treated differently due to our respective race – for instance, when we would go through airport security (pre-9/11), even in uniform – he would be searched and I would be passed through. He took it all in stride, but I was offended.

    All we can do is refuse to tolerate racism in any form. Speak up when people you may run into make racist remarks. Examine yourself and be an example to others. Racism, like sexism, homophobia, and other bigotries sub-optimize the ability of everyone to contribute to society and our community.

    Thank you Professor for posting this. It puts the incident in a larger context that is being overlooked.

  36. Dear Dr. Basri: I am so sorry this happened to you. The reality of white privilege (i.e., the remote likelihood that such a series of events would ever happen to me) was really brought home in a seminar I attended. The multiracial group of more than 40 people was lined up according to their responses to a questionnaire asking about various experiences they had had, such as being stopped by a cop for no apparent reason, etc.

    It was astounding how closely the spectrum of skin tones matched the scores on the questionnaire. I was just about the whitest person there, and across from me as the darkest was a tall African American male vice president of our college (of a similar age and personal style very similar to you). He continues to be the object of multiple episodes of racist behavior. May it all stop one day soon.

    Kind regards, MARTHA GOFF

  37. Perhaps if you had not appeared to be such a thug…. Or so you might have been portrayed by those feeling their places of privilege threatened.

    Without the benefit of my photo, let me inform you that I am a middle-aged white male of comfortable means … and I convincingly look the part. I want to tell you that your experience was just a misunderstanding, that you have it all wrong. But I know better. My appearance and my perceived status that accompanies it make me uncomfortably privy to how many of my “peers” truly regard those who are not like “us.” You know, “Them”: The blacks, the Mexicans, the gays, etc., and sometimes even those women. Not often, but still too frequently, other white males, apparently assuming some special confidence with me based on my appearance, will too comfortably share their most astonishing views, if not expressly, by unmistakable innuendo.

    Prejudice and bias persist in our great freedom loving, equality espousing nation. We as a nation, and particularly us “white people,” have made progress in overcoming racism, sexism, and other forms of bias, but not nearly as far as I once believed. Yes, by affirming your perception of your experience with my inside information, I know I must be betraying that special confidence to which my outward appearance apparently entitles me, but if so, let me proclaim that I do not want to be part of that exclusive club.

  38. Gibor, I completely agree with your reaction to the incident in Florida. I find it offensive when I am confronted by self-appointed vigilantes. Doesn’t matter if they are private security guards or neighborhood watch, their legal status allows them to observe and report, not to confront or hassle members of the public. Had Zimmerman followed that policy, he would never have had cause to claim he was “threatened” by Trayvon, nor could he have hidden behind the self defense excuse.

    Admittedly, the laws/judicial practices in southern states are illogical and discriminate against the poor and minorities. In Georgia a defendant accused of shoplifting that uses a public defender will be offered bail of $40,000, minimum! This means that innocent or guilty, they will languish in jail for weeks or months before trial. It also explains why so many plead to a lesser charge.

    I am white and have travelled extensively in the South on business. I also have seven adopted kids, three are Asian, three are Black, and one is a Mayan Indian. I also have three birth children who are white. My advice to all of them, which I also follow is to avoid the South until we see some substantial improvement in their justice system. Meanwhile, we need to be working to make sure that our justice system in California eventually deserves that name.

  39. The fact that the term “race” is a culturally created idea implies that profiling is okay. The simple fact is that a black citizen amongst a white crowd is no different from a white citizen amidst a black crowd. They may have different connotations, yet both are racialized methods of profiling that clearly state the obvious: something is out of the ordinary.

    I am not advocating for racism or saying that a suspicious (black man in white neighborhood/ white man in a black neighborhood… yes, it goes both ways) occurrence merits guilt. I am only arguing that Trayvon Martin, as a black individual, in an predominantly white neighborhood culturally indicates that something is out of the ordinary. Again, do not misinterpret; out of the ordinary may truly mean lost or visiting a friend (harmless), yet it is proper cause for attention.

    Referring back to the example, if a caucasian man were walking through south central LA, or east Oakland (predominantly black and hispanic)… the average person would deem something to be out of the ordinary (again, not necessarily criminal, just unusual; possibly a visit to a friend, or as you stated, talking to your wife on the phone) purely based off of the subjectively cultural categorizations that society has deemed appropriate.

    I am not going to give my opinion on the case because I haven’t studied the facts or followed the trial closely enough. I am going to finish off though by saying that preconceived notions about a person (instincts, subjective stereotypes, body language) all play into one’s thoughts about what is normal and what is unusual.

    If Zimmerman found something to be unusual based on the aforementioned bases, then I find his foundation for approaching Martin to be acceptable (take note that curiosity is based on such rationale… how Zimmerman chose to act after he approached Martin and the events which took place that night are beyond the scope of this reply and outside the domain of my argument)

  40. It was a tragedy. Do not let that deter you from sharing your prospective. Be sure to defend your rights, especially now that Napolitano is going to be further up the leadership chain…

  41. My only question is why you relate your reaction to the verdict in the Zimmerman trial instead of the laws of the State of Florida. The verdict was, objectively, correct. Under the laws and the evidence shown at trial, it is very difficult to argue that the jury reached the ‘wrong’ verdict.

    The problem in this case has always been twofold- the racial tensions and profiling that regularly take place all over the country, but especially in the South, and a legal system that allows extremely dubious self-defense claims to act as legal shields to prosecution.

    If the jury had convicted, it should not have quelled your feelings expressed above, it would have effectively been an act of jury nullification, which while perhaps admirable depending on your sentiments of the case and the concept of jury nullification, does nothing to resolve the circumstances of race issues and bad laws you actually have problems with.

  42. Thank you for expressing your views with those of us that are interested. We live in a world that judges people by their performance, if not only their appearence. Challenges should used to Strenghten a culture, Not to make that culture “softer”. You need to strengthen those who share your common belief, and not work against them. By the way, they are sending Janet Napolitano your way. You should find a way to protect yourselves.

  43. I’m sorry you had the experience. It has, however, put recent events into a clearer perspective. Lesson learned — by me. Thanks.

    • Just a reminder that racial profiling works both ways. Six years ago I was walking in the upper west side of Manhattan in an African-American neighborhood during the late evening. Three black youths came up to me. One punched me in the teeth knocking me down, and then said “You better get your mother-f…ing ass out of here quick. ” I’m not a gun-carrying type. I felt lucky to escape with my life.

      The police weren’t interested in my complaint, calling it commonplace, and implying it was my own fault for walking in this neighborhood late at night. Moreover there is no Caucasian version of the NAACP to deal with this.

      • There is no Caucasian version of the NAACP because the ADL/SPLC/ACLU want to make sure that no “white” organization ever arises in this country. That’s if you want to talk about who has the power in America. What happened to you happens every day. Zimmerman made the mistake of defending himself – the NAACP wants to send a message to nonblack America – you do not get to defend yourself or else. About what happend to you, no stories will be written and no New York Times articles – no spreads in the New Yorker. Not even the National Review will so much as mention such an event. And it will not get better.

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