Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman: The starker the injustice, the more it is denied

Don’t underestimate this desire to believe that racism is over. It is so strong it cannot allow for the blatant evidence of injustice presented by Zimmerman’s acquittal

Share

I first read about Trayvon Martin on Facebook. My cousin who is a young black American man, a few years older than Martin posted a local news story about this other young black American man who had been shot, and the family’s campaign to have the perpetrator arrested. I had recently moved back to London after a period living in Los Angeles and my first thought was “Thank God, that would never happen here.” And then I remembered Stephen Lawrence. And Azelle Rodney. And Mark Duggan. And Smiley Culture.

Don’t worry, you don’t need an African-American cousin of your own to abhor the abstract notion of racism. To determine a person’s value based on their skin is obviously absurd, isn’t it? I believe the vast majority of us, up to and including some members of the KKK, would all prefer to think we lived in a post-racial world where equal justice is available to all. The key distinction here is not between the racists and the non-racists. It is between those who have the luxury to indulge their denial, and those who do not.

On the day George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin, young black men of all classes, professions and character were forcefully disabused of the luxury of denial. They were reminded, once again, that it doesn’t matter if they walk fast or slow, fight back or run, if they are guilty of a crime or not, in the eyes of the law they can be shot down in the street and no one will be held accountable.

Elsewhere, among those for whom denial was still possible, the jury’s verdict elicited a variety of responses, but many of them were in some form or other a rejection of the possibility that Martin’s family could have been refused justice because of the colour of their son’s skin. 

Don’t underestimate the strength of this desire to believe that the world is just. It is so strong it cannot coexist with the blatant evidence of injustice presented by Zimmerman’s acquittal. The reality, which is there for all to see, must be somehow deflected, mitigated or denied. And the starker the example of injustice, the stronger is this desire to deny it.

My solution was to assume, incorrectly, that this could happen only in America. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post resolved our paradox a different way. In a comment piece published this week he defended Zimmerman and himself against the charge of racism with the racist argument that Martin was “understandably suspect because he was black” and moreover, that to make this claim is simply “recognizing the reality of urban crime”.

All very "understandable", until you remember that the reality in this case was that Martin was both black and not in any way suspect. He was not carrying a weapon, he had every right to be in the area, he had not burgled anyone; he was only going home. In how many other cases is reality also distorted by so-called "common sense"?

Like Cohen, proponents of racial profiling have been forced to square Martin’s demonstrable innocence with their worldview. They do so awkwardly, but determinedly. In the absence of any evidence that Martin had been “up to no good” as Zimmerman put it, reporters sought to discredit the dead 17-year-old by searching for criminal behaviour in his past; a retrospective justification for prejudice.

Does the allegation that Martin smoked marijuana justify killing him? Does the news that one black teenager smoked pot justify assuming every black teenager is guilty of a crime? Of course not, but since nothing that might have been dug up could ever justify Martin’s fate, you have to wonder if that was ever the point. In effect these details only serve to further obscure the central fact of the case: from the beginning, the colour of Trayvon Martin’s skin rendered every other circumstance of his death irrelevant.

The attempt to smear black victims of crime is not unfamiliar. There is evidence to suggest it happened in the cases of black British men including Stephen Lawrence. These cases differ in many specifics – after all these men were all different people with different lifestyles and back stories and characters. It is not the families’ campaigns for justice which seek to erode the distinctions. It is a legal system which believes that all black men are criminals and that the killing of a black criminal is always justifiable.

The trial of George Zimmerman included many details too: Would it ever have happened if Florida had different gun laws? Whose screams were those on the tape? Is Zimmerman Hispanic or Jewish or white? These details provided commentators with fodder for discussion and excuses to deny the relevance of race. Many of these commentators looked at the case and concluded that justice, however unpalatable, had been served. If you agree, remember this: All these details persuasive or not, relevant or irrelevant would never have come before a court had the authorities been left to their own devices. It took 44 days and nationwide protests for Zimmerman to even be arrested.

This is why there is no need to prove that Zimmerman was a racist to show that Trayvon Martin was the victim of racism. A “common sense” prejudice that Zimmerman shares with many has been allowed to calcify into a deeply unjust legal system. And instead of challenging this system, all our energy this week has been spent denying it even exists.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Children of a bygone era  

Kids these days aren't what they used to be — they're a lot better. So why the fuss?

Archie Bland
A suited man eyes up the moral calibre of a burlesque troupe  

Be they burlesque dancers or arms dealers, a bank has no business judging the morality of its clients

John Walsh
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star