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.