(RNS) Racism remains a dark, durable — and seemingly intractable — element of the American personality. Predictably, the trial of George Zimmerman for the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin was a national racial Rorschach test.

A young person holding a gun.

A young person holding a gun. Photo courtesy Shutterstock

The not guilty verdict has allowed shadow racists among conservative media pundits the cover to begin to emerge with their real agendas: Trayvon Martin was a typical, young, inner city thug, and he got what was coming to him.

The case opened a vein of bile only exacerbated by the anonymity of the Internet. As demonstrated in the past, people were willing to write vile things from behind the cyber curtain they would never have the courage to say in public (albeit often with spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors). The more threatening of these — amplified and magnified by talk radio and cable television — raised fears of post-verdict violence that have thus far not materialized.

I covered more than two dozen capital murder, rape and insurrection trials in the South in the 1970s, and death penalty cases in California in the 1990s.

I covered the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman, and have a dual perspective on the proceedings, and the outcome. As a longtime court reporter, the jury’s decision did not surprise me. As a religion writer the outcome was nonetheless troubling, no less for having seen it coming.

The further you are from the courtroom the more ethically and morally vexing Zimmerman’s acquittal must seem. Where is the justice? Did not Trayvon Martin, have a superior moral — and legal — right to stand his ground and to defend himself that rainy night, returning from an innocent errand? Clearly, he did.

Part of the problem with the trial, apart from the prosecution’s now widely acknowledged blunder in overcharging Zimmerman with second-degree murder, lies with the Florida legislature, and the political climate that sent its members to Tallahassee.

In particular, with the lunatic — and, I would argue, racist — manner in which it has defined self-defense. You can start a fight for any reason, and if you begin to lose the altercation, and feel you are about to suffer grave body harm, you can kill the other person with total immunity.

Or, worse, if you manage to extricate yourself, you are under no obligation to leave the scene. You can safely stand in the middle of the street and shoot the other person in the heart. (The state’s “Stand Your Ground” law played no role in Zimmerman’s criminal trial.)

Trayvon Martin's father Tracy Martin and mother Sybrina Fulton at the Million Hoodies Union Square protest in New York (2012) against the shooting of Trayvon in Sanford, Florida.

Trayvon Martin’s father Tracy Martin and mother Sybrina Fulton at the Million Hoodies Union Square protest in New York (2012) against the shooting of Trayvon in Sanford, Florida. Photo courtesy David Shankbone via Flickr


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Where are the moral and ethical underpinnings for such a legal philosophy? Much of it, in my view, and that of other political historians, derives from a Florida legislature controlled by a Republican Party whose modern, 20th-century foundation is the White Citizens’ Council; when Southern blacks battled their way into the Democratic Party as part of the civil rights movement, diehard racist whites left for the GOP.

More recently, the GOP has been shaped and skewed by a demagogic notion of what constitutes law and order, and a creepy, almost pathological fixation with carrying concealed handguns. In Florida, Texas or North Carolina there is little demonstrated practical need for citizens in non-high risk occupations to be armed outside their homes and places of business.

With barely a wink and a nod, it is evident to a significant segment of the white political class in Florida, and throughout the Sunbelt, who the menace is considered to be — the “other,” people like Trayvon Martin. In much the same way that lynchings in the 19th and 20th century served as a symbolic — and actual — mechanism of social control in the South, so too does the acquittal of George Zimmerman for taking the life of Trayvon Martin.

(Longtime religion writer  Mark I. Pinsky is author of the forthcoming “Met Her on the Mountain: A Forty-Year Quest to Solve the Appalachian Cold-Case Murder of Nancy Morgan.”)

26 Comments

  1. This article is less than persuasive. Someone who jumps another human being and begins pounding his face in is indeed a “menace”. Beware the finger that points out racism, because when you look in the mirror it may be pointing back at you.

    This was not about race. It was about behavior.

    The color of one’s skin is not really that important. I can think of far more important aspects of a human being that should be focused on for identity.

    • “Someone who jumps another human being and begins pounding his face in is indeed a “menace”.”

      What do you call someone who jumps to conclusions about a person’s appearance and behavior, refuses to wait for the police, and confronts “the suspect” with no real cause?

      • George Zimmerman had an excellent cause. He lives in a neighborhood where there is so much crime that over 400 calls were made to the police over a year’s time. Strangers have come into the neighborhood and have committed numerous crimes, and the establishment of the neighborhood watch has resulted in many arrests and at least one crime in progress being interrupted. When George saw a stranger walking about with no apparent purpose he did what he and other members of his neighborhood watch have done many, many times – call it in and follow up to make sure the police find the person. He had an entirely legitimate cause to find out who Trayvon was and what his business was.

        • “over 400 calls were made to the police”–Each one a legitimate report of an actual crime, no doubt. And Zimmerman’s record as a nightwatchman has no bearing on how we evaluate his behavior, of course.

          “the establishment of the neighborhood watch”–And of course Zimmerman was wearing some sort of official identification. And he followed proper NW procedures at each step, no doubt.

          “a stranger walking about with no apparent purpose”–Because everyone walking home from the store, trying to dodge the rain, and talking on a cell-phone should be suspected, called into the police, tailed, and confronted. Especially “[expletive deleted] punks” who “always get away.”

          “call it in and follow up to make sure the police find the person” –Mind showing me the transcripts where the 911 operator told Zimmerman to follow up”? Or show me where in the NW guidelines he was instructed to “follow up”?

          • The 911 operator did not tell Zimmerman to follow up. The 911 operator has no authority to tell anyone to do anything, so what the 911 operator did or did not tell Zimmerman to do is moot. I have no idea what the NW procedure are, but he was not on duty at the time. You don’t have to be a member of the NW to notice someone suspicious, call it into the cops, and try to make sure the cops can find the guy. All of that is completely legitimate for any citizen to do.

          • “All of that is completely legitimate for any citizen to do.” Martin probably thought walking home from a store at 7pm was a completely legitimate thing to do, too. Too bad Zimmerman’s totally legit, no-way questionable actions trumped his right to be presumed innocent or even stand his ground against a suspicious stranger huh? Way to ignore the rest of my points too, by the way.

    • It concerns me that the one juror felt they were both responsible, and they both could have walked away. Martin was minding his own business when he was confronted by an adult carrying a gun, who apparently was prepared to use it. Was he really free to walk away at that point? Why do you see one act as an act of menace and the other as self defense?

      • Testimony was offered that George was going back to his car and that Trayvon – probably angry that someone had been following him – confronted George. In any case, yes – Trayvon was in fact free to walk away.

        • Pretty sure Zimmerman was free to drive away. Or wait for police. But yep, it was Trayvon “probably angry” Martin who started this. Poor Zimmerman was just defending himself, just like the law said he could and the jury said he did. Move along, folks. Nothing to see here. Justice has been served. If a few “probably angry” Martins or other “punks” get killed, well, hey, that’s just the price we pay so law-abiding citizens can feel safe.

          • Zimmerman was free to do a lot of things – including the thing he did. Nothing Zimmerman did justified being physically assaulted.

          • “Zimmerman was free to do a lot of things – including the thing he did. Nothing Zimmerman did justified being physically assaulted.”
            You don’t know exactly what happened between Zimmerman and Martin, so that part is a huge leap. But *everything* Martin did justified being profiled, followed, and confronted, right?

    • John, really? The poor kid was walking back to his uncles place. Zimmerman is the “lunatic” here. He is the one who started the situation and he became judge, jury, and executioner. At least Zimmerman got a trial. He wanted to shoot this kid. And 17 years old is still a kid.

      If Zimmerman had done what the police had told him to do and stay in his car this would not be happening and Trayvon would still be alive. Because if some idiot had stopped me and started giving me an attitude for no reason and pulled a gun on me I would pound his face into the ground too.

      This fall Im wearing my hoodie as a protest. BTW Im white.

    • Eric, you were not there.
      You will not end racism by making example of the Zimmermans of the USA!
      Florida’s laws ARE an abomination, but they are laws.
      ONLY black family reconstruction can solve this, and not reparations or scapegoats.

  2. I disagree with John completely; it IS about race, because there is a context and didn’t happen in a vacuum. When you consider that a black woman is sentenced to 20 years for firing a warning shot to scare away an abusive husband, yet a white man is not punished at all for pursuing and killing an unarmed black boy in his own neighborhood, then you know there is a major race problem in the state of Florida as well as the nation as a whole. Self-defense is a right for whites but a crime for blacks.

    • “When you consider that a black woman is sentenced to 20 years for firing a warning shot to scare away an abusive husband, yet a white man is not punished at all for pursuing and killing an unarmed black boy in his own neighborhood”

      Jeanne, you need to research the facts of the case instead of just repeating talking points. In the first case you speak of the woman in question was confronted by an abusive husband. She left the home and was safe. Then she went to her car, retrieved a gun, and then re-entered the home and shot. She was sentenced to 20 years because she had removed herself from the threat and THEN armed herself and re-entered the area. If her husband was threatening her and she had taken a gun at hand and shot at him it would have been self-defense. But because she was under no threat at the time she armed herself and then sought out her husband it was NOT a case of self-defense.

      If George Zimmerman had been assaulted by Trayvon, run away from him and reached safety, gotten out his gun, sought out Trayvon and shot him he would have been guilty of murder. But that’s not what happened. The two cases are not comparable.

      • So Zimmerman stalking this kid is not the same as that poor black women getting 20 years for discharging a firearm? Thats what Zimmerman was doing. Only he hit his target and was aiming to kill.

        I have a CPL license and one of the rules for having one is basically you’re NOT supposed to go out looking for trouble. Which is exactly what he did. Zimmerman is the cause of this whole situation. He killed that kid in cold blood and he should be in jail for at least 20 years.

        That black women should just be receiving 3 months community service for discharging a firearm within city limits and nothing more.

    • She almost shot his two sons, and had left to fetch the gun. Then went to him after ordered to stay away, and punched him. She was guilty, as well as black… too bad.

  3. Whereas I have much respect for the author, the title of this commentary and the content are not strongly linked. The current debate surrounding the “carry” of firearms has nothing to do with social control, and everything to do with an urgency to uphold the Constitution of the United States and its Bill of Rights for all citizens, regardless of race, color or creed. As long as the media continues to link issues of race with the issue of gun control, this misunderstanding will prevail. As a former journalist, I plead with all persons offering commentary to stop blurring the lines between race and the Second Amendment. I further plead that for every Trayvon, there are hundreds of other American Citizens who have been wrongfully killed (by any means) for racially motivated reasons who received no justice at all; where was the media frenzy for them?

    • “there are hundreds of other American Citizens who have been wrongfully killed (by any means) for racially motivated reasons who received no justice at all”

      And you have the stats to support this? Your ignorance of and breezy dismissal of the historical context sketched in the article doesn’t incline me to take your word.

  4. “Did not Trayvon Martin, have a superior moral — and legal — right to stand his ground and to defend himself that rainy night, returning from an innocent errand? Clearly, he did.”

    Yes – if George Zimmerman had attacked him. But no one has alleged that George did so and no witness and no physical evidence indicated such.

    “You can start a fight for any reason, and if you begin to lose the altercation, and feel you are about to suffer grave body harm, you can kill the other person with total immunity.”

    Not true. If you start a fight the other person can defend themselves, but you have lost your right to inflict harm. Where has anyone done what you allege?

    “Or, worse, if you manage to extricate yourself, you are under no obligation to leave the scene. You can safely stand in the middle of the street and shoot the other person in the heart.”

    False in the end. True, once having extricated yourself you are under no obligation to leave the scene. But if the person ceases to assault you then shooting them is murder. Again, support your allegation with any actual such case.

    “Where are the moral and ethical underpinnings for such a legal philosophy?” There are none. That’s why it is NOT in fact the legal philosophy in Florida.

    ” In Florida, Texas or North Carolina there is little demonstrated practical need for citizens in non-high risk occupations to be armed outside their homes and places of business.”

    There are high-risk areas that people need to be in to shop or worship or simply live. And one does not need to satisfy a government authority in order to exercise a civil right – that’s why they ARE civil rights.

    “people like Trayvon Martin. In much the same way that lynchings in the 19th and 20th century served as a symbolic — and actual — mechanism of social control in the South, so too does the acquittal of George Zimmerman for taking the life of Trayvon Martin”

    Lynchings were racist acts of murder, directed against blacks simply on the basis that they were black. In contrast, this incident had nothing to do about race at all.

  5. Jennifer Hendricks

    Please stop repeating that Stand Your Ground played no role in the trial. Zimmerman did not request a preliminary hearing under that statute, but the jury WAS instructed to apply it. The juror who has been talking to the media has said that the jury relied on it to acquit.

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