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The Zimmerman Trial as Rorschach Test

In response to my post on the George Zimmerman trial and the left’s reaction to it, I heard from some people I know who felt like I erred in my analysis. They believe Trayvon Martin was targeted as a suspect because he was a black teen, that it’s clear that Zimmerman engaged in racial profiling, and so race was a motivating factor in the Martin killing. 

People can decide for themselves if what I wrote is sufficiently careful and fair-minded. But I thought I’d use the comments and concerns raised by these individuals to clarify and expand on some points.

What I argued was that there’s simply no indication that George Zimmerman is a racist. No evidence was presented at the trial that the killing was the equivalent of what the head of the NAACP called a “modern-day lynching.” It matters that neither the prosecution, nor the defense, nor the police, nor the jurors ever said that this trial was about race. In fact, they said the opposite. Many in the media (especially NBC/MSNBC) have acted in deeply irresponsible ways. And comparisons to what happened in Sanford, Florida on February 26, 2012 to what happened to Emmett Till on August 28, 1955 is a terrible disfigurement of history.  

On the matter of whether Martin was targeted because of his race: Sanford Police Department detective Chris Serino’s interpretation sounds plausible. He told the FBI that Zimmerman’s actions were not based on Martin’s skin color but rather based on his attire, the total circumstances of the encounter and the previous burglary suspects in the community. And if Trayvon Martin had been a 75-year-old African American man in a suit using a cane and walking next to his four-year-old grandchild, we all know nothing would have happened that night. If, on the other hand, a 28-year-old “white Hispanic” male with rough attire had been walking around his neighborhood on a rainy night, George Zimmerman may well have followed him. It appears what Zimmerman was doing was engaging in criminal profiling. Now, whether it’s inappropriate for race to ever, under any circumstances, be taken into account when it comes to criminal profiling is an issue worth discussing. But that is entirely different than Zimmerman killing Martin was based on racial animus, which is what racial demagogues like Al Sharpton are saying.

At the same time, I want to underscore again my belief that George Zimmerman made some tragic errors. He’s no hero. Moreover, Trayvon Martin not only didn’t deserve to die; he was innocent of any wrongdoing. The fact that he was killed is a crushing blow from which his family will never fully recover. His parents are living through an ordeal they didn’t deserve. A month from now the rest of us will have moved on from this trial. They will not have. Those of us who believe the Zimmerman verdict was correct should not forget that.

But the trial and its aftermath demonstrated something else as well. It served as a kind of Rorschach test. Some people who paid close attention to the trial came away convinced that the second-degree murder charge against George Zimmerman was indefensible, that the jury verdict was correct, and that the effort by some on the left to turn this into a Mississippi Burning moment is wrong and reckless. And many of those who claim solidarity with the African American community right now have had little or nothing to say about black-on-black crime, which is doing far more damage to the African American community than the type of incident that occurred in the Zimmerman-Martin confrontation. The moral outrage therefore seems somewhat contrived and convenient.

Others who paid close attention to the trial came away from it focused on one overriding fact: an innocent young black man was wrongly killed and the person who pulled the trigger of the weapon is a free man. In addition, they believe Trayvon Martin was a victim of racial profiling–if he had been white, the killing would never have occurred–and the consider George Zimmerman to be a “wannabe vigilante.” All of this upsets them and is evidence that the system is rigged, to one degree or another, against blacks. The fact that an innocent African American is dead from a gun shot and no one has been convicted of a crime is “another piece of evidence of the incontrovertible contempt that this nation often shows and displays for black men.” 

Now, I’ve made my case for which of these two interpretations I consider to align more closely with the facts in this case. I also believe the incendiary and reckless rhetoric has made a sober and informed discussion of race and crime very difficult to have. Any time Al Sharpton is a central figure in a discussion about race, it won’t be constructive. That said, I understand why reasonable people will react in a much different way than I did to the Zimmerman verdict and its aftermath and why they believe race may well have played a role in the death of Trayvon Martin, even if racial bigotry did not. One can appreciate why this is something that troubles them.

A final observation: None of us interprets things in a perfectly detached and objective way; we all bring to our analysis of events certain predilections. We see the same set of facts and might process them in entirely different ways. That doesn’t mean that every interpretation of events is equally valid. But we should all be alert to the fact that we often seek out information or view things in a manner that reinforces our existing opinions. And most of us should try harder than we do to see things from different vantage points that are the result of different experiences, assumptions and moral intuitions. It’s probably good, too, to have at least a few people in our orbit who have standing in our lives and are willing to challenge our interpretation of reality. That doesn’t mean we’ll agree with them on every point. But if we’re lucky, it just might help us see things a bit more clearly and a bit more fully.



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