Let us give the jury the benefit of the doubt.
Let us assume that, within the narrow constraints of the evidence at hand and Florida’s bizarre gun laws, six good women rendered the only verdict they could Saturday night in acquitting George Zimmerman of murder and manslaughter in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Even so, the problem remains. Whatever legal closure it gives, this verdict does not satisfy, any more than a guilty verdict would have, the central moral question here:
Why did Zimmerman regard Trayvon as suspicious when all he did was wear a hooded sweatshirt while walking in the rain? Why did initial police reports designate Trayvon the suspect when he was actually the unarmed victim? Why was his assailant able to go home that same night?
Trayvon’s parents have consistently rejected any notion that race played a role in his death. It was a smart position, reflecting a recognition that when race enters the conversation, reason often exits, compassion following close behind.
But truth is, race has been there at every turn. If man and boy had both been black or white, we would never have heard of either. There likely would not even have been a shooting.
For many of us as African-Americans, that night was a recurring nightmare driven to a horrific conclusion. It was the driving-while-black traffic stops, the “born suspect” joke that isn’t, the cost of being black in a nation that considers black the natural color of criminality.
Some people — most of them white and on the furthest right of the political spectrum — will disagree. For them, Zimmerman is the victim here, a man who acted justifiably to defend himself. Race, they will say, did not enter the picture except afterward, when he was thrown to the mob because of it.
And you wonder: What color is the sky on their world?
A few years ago, What Would You Do?, an ABC-TV hidden-camera show, set up a situation where two actors posed as bike thieves in a public park, using bolt cutters and hack saws to cut a bike chain. The results were instructive. Over the course of an hour, a hundred people passed the white “thief” by with barely a glance. The black one had hardly gotten to work before a crowd of whites gathered around him, interrogating him, lecturing him, calling 911, even shooting cell phone video.
Did race explain the disparity? “Not at all,” a white man who had harassed the black actor assured the cameras. “He could’ve been any color, it wouldn’t have mattered to me.” He doubtless believed what he said. For some of us, though, it has a tired, heard-before quality.
It is, after all, the kind of thing some people always say when you complain of voter ID laws that will peel black voters off the rolls.
Or when you condemn Republican presidential candidates for using “welfare” as a dog-whistle word of racial acrimony.
Or when an unarmed boy is killed and the man who did the killing doesn’t even spend the night in jail.
But the answer to the moral questions that killing raises is not mysterious to some of us. We know how America is. We know, for instance, that it regards black men as inherently criminal, jails them disproportionately because of that belief, then points to the fact that they are disproportionately jailed as proof of that belief. We know, in other words, that where people who look like Trayvon are concerned, America is a little nuts.
So we know what stalked Trayvon down that street last year. We know what killed him. And we know why the people who were paid to give a damn about that, didn’t. You see, we have not the luxury of self-delusion. We have sons and grandsons and nephews, and we must teach them, too, how America is. They are cocky and invincible in the way boys always are.
And they all look like Trayvon.