In 2009, Roderick Scott, a black man, was put on trial for killing a 17-year-old, unarmed white teenager named Christopher Cervini. Scott found Cervini and two other youths breaking into a car. Scott pulled out a gun and told the group to wait for the police. When Cervini charged, Scott shot and killed him. Scott’s claim was self-defense. He claimed the even though Cervini was un-armed, he had reason to fear for his life. Amazingly, here we have the “what if” scenario pondered endlessly over the past week, including by President Obama. Would Zimmerman have been found not guilty if Trayvon Martin had not been black? The question is usually posed rhetorically, with the implied, if not stated response being “hell no.” So what happened to Scott? Like Zimmerman, he was acquitted.
Of course, no two cases are completely analogous. But the Scott/Cervini and the Zimmerman/Martin cases are instructive in both the similarity of their issues and their outcomes. But as the events since the Zimmerman verdict was announced have evidenced, facts don’t always matter. This was perhaps best illustrated by President Obama, when he explained we had to understand the feelings of the African-American community given its history of suffering from injustice and profiling that just “won’t go away.” He was sure to include himself as a victim of being watched in department stores, or of people locking their car doors as he approached, or women clutching their purses in an elevator with a black man. This has raised the eyebrows of some who question the extent to which the president, who spent most of his adult life in elite schools or elective office, really suffered such indignities, especially considering his already famous reputation for taking liberal artistic license with the facts in his autobiographies. But that really doesn’t matter, either.
What matters is that the president, supposedly a transformative “post-racial president” who wants to bring the nation together, instead of taking the opportunity to explain to the “black community” why the Zimmerman verdict was reasonable, even if many did not agree with it, took the opposite approach, lecturing those of us who thought the verdict was reasonable that we had to realize that our understanding of justice just doesn’t cut it. We need to respect those who would seek to replace our system of justice — due process, fair trials, the need for solid evidence to achieve conviction — with something more akin to a rigged version of American Idol where “guilty” or “not guilty” is the result of how motivated the members of one interest group are to call in as many times as they can for their preference.
The American justice system is not perfect. On rare occasions verdicts are tainted by gross misconduct by witnesses, prosecutors, defense lawyers, or jurors. There was no hint of misconduct by either the defense attorneys, defense witnesses, or the jury in the Trayvon Martin case. If the president wanted to comment on the case, he should have thanked the jurors for performing their difficult and thankless task instead of implying that there might be good reason to suspect that they were not fair and impartial in reaching their verdict.
You would think that the history of African Americans that Obama cited would make the black community more sensitive to the need to resist a politically motivated legal system based more on the emotions of the community than on evidence and the rule of law. That is another point that President Obama, as a national leader and with his unique position to be able to talk to African Americans about African-American problems, could have, and should have, made, rather than trotting out stereotypes of white people obsessively fearful of blacks.
We all have histories that won’t go away. We all have experiences in our past that shape the way we see the world or respond to certain things. George Zimmerman, for instance, had a history of being in a neighborhood suffering from a crime wave, included having the perpetrator of a home invasion making his escape through his own backyard while his wife and young child were home alone. All these things can make us understand points of view. But at some point, we all have to get over these personal histories. We are all Americans, all living under the same sets of rules, and for the good of all we have to apply uniformly a single set of standards and respect a single vision of justice. No group gets to opt out of respecting jury verdicts.
It is also unclear that Trayvon Martin in his short life, spent mostly in a predominately African-American area, had much or any personal experience with racial discrimination. Trayvon Martin certainly didn’t share many traits with 17-year-old Barack Obama. Obama had no problems with the law, did not get suspended from school, did not get thrown out of the house by his mother, and did not assault “creepy-ass crackers.” So when President Obama said that he could have been Trayvon Martin, we can only surmise that he identifies with Martin based on the color of his skin rather than the content of his character. That, unfortunately, is a step in the wrong direction.
There is no evidence that George Zimmerman is an evil, racist “profiler.” To the contrary, he is a man of mixed racial background (including an Afro-Peruvian grandmother), who mentored black kids, and once joined in a complaint about a white youth who beat up a black homeless man. Likewise, Trayvon Martin was no innocent “kid” just trying to walk home. He was as 6 foot 2, 175 pound young man with a checkered history who bragged about his fighting skill. Maybe Zimmerman’s perception that Martin looked to be up to no good was wrong. We’ll never know, though we do know that Zimmerman’s suspicion that Martin was on drugs was correct.
The fact remains that Trayvon Martin is dead, and that is a tragedy. Many young adults with problems have been able to turn their lives around. Trayvon Martin, like Christopher Cervini, was denied that chance. But the primary reason behind Trayvon Martin’s untimely demise was a set of actions that Trayvon Martin chose to take. Unfortunately, the actions taken by Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and others who profit from racial tension and mistrust have compounded the tragedy.
The black community faces many problems, many of which it has been facing for decades — including the fact that sometimes, in some places, those paranoid attitudes of white folks aren’t all that irrational (including at some of the “Justice for Trayvon” demonstrations). But instead of confronting real issues, the self-appointed black leadership is pursuing a destructive path of racial division. Instead of working to find real solutions to bad schools, broken families, and a lack of jobs, they’d rather lead a boycott of Florida.