Fighting Words

Not The Law: The Culture Failed Trayvon Martin

  @JamesDiGioia on July 17 2013 4:22 PM

The George Zimmerman verdict shouldn't really surprise anyone. The case really couldn't have gone any other way; in a situation like this with few witnesses and a lot of conflicting accounts, it is much easier for the defense to put enough reasonable doubt in the jury's minds than it was for the prosecution to do otherwise. The problem, really, has less to do with the specifics of the case and law and a lot more to do with how we apply that law.

This was brought to my attention initially by this ThinkProgess piece on "laissez-faire racism":

The crux of this argument is that American racism has largely moved beyond the overt, biologically-based strain prevalent during the Jim Crow era to a more subtle form of racial exclusion based on the notion that African Americans themselves — and their cultural norms — are to blame for their social and economic position in American life. [Harvard sociologist Lawrence] Bobo’s theory is typically used to explain white indifference to pervasive economic inequality and educational underachievement in black communities, lines like “they don’t work hard enough” or “they don’t have the right values,” and hostility to progressive policies to achieve greater equality and opportunity for African Americans.

It's pretty much summed up as succinctly as possible in this Chief Justice John Roberts quote: "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." As explained in the quote, we've gotten to the point where overt racism is no longer canonized in law, but the application and effects of that racism are still being felt.

It's the same way you end up with cases like the shooting of Jordan Davis (also in Florida). This isn't about the law, although Stand Your Ground gives courage to those who may have walked away, but a culture that treats all black youths as potential suspects, as potential drug dealers or gang members, or almost definitely a gun owner, despite doing little more than listening to music loudly. It's a culture that denies young blacks the opportunities needed to succeed, and then blames them for their failure, and then calls laws and programs to help them "racist."

Even with that as the prevailing cultural norm, African-Americans don't commit crimes more than whites do:

Overall, figures from a variety of institutions—including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Justice Statistics—show that among black youth, rates of robbery and serious property offenses are at their lowest rates in 40 years, as are rates of violent crime and victimization. And while it’s true that young black men are a disproportionate share of the nation’s murder victims, it’s hard to disentangle this from the stew of hyper-segregation (often a result of deliberate policies), entrenched poverty, and nonexistent economic opportunities that characterizes a substantial number of black communities. Hence the countless inner-city anti-violence groups that focus on creating opportunity for young, disadvantaged African-Americans, through education, mentoring, and community programs. Blacks care intensely about the violence that happens in their communities. After all, they have to live with it.

You simply can't say we've reached a post-racial society, or that laws aren't racist, if you don't factor in the inputs that cause racial disparities. It's the whole point of these programs: to get us as a culture and a country to the point where the inputs achieve something resembling equality. But our culture and our system isn't designed for this; we're still left with people declaring our justice system "color-blind" and denying that race played a role in the case despite the obvious inequality in outcomes. The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates:

The injustice inherent in the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman was not authored by jury given a weak case. The jury's performance may be the least disturbing aspect of this entire affair. The injustice was authored by a country which has taken as its policy, for lionshare of its history, to erect a pariah class. The killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman is not an error in programming. It is the correct result of forces we set in motion years ago and have done very little to arrest.

In all honesty, this is about the extent of my understanding of the problem of racism in society. As one who was born into an extraordinary amount of privilege, I'm just beginning to reconcile that fact with the injustice I see and the frustration I feel around these issues. I don't really know what I'm supposed to do from here, and I think coming to terms with my lack of knowledge and understanding of those who suffer from injustice is at least the first step.

One thing I do know: men are not an oppressed group. lol.

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