Zimmerman trial: Race is a constant in US life – as elsewhere

The death of Trayvon Martin has proved that race is still a factor in national life – but name one country on earth which has a significant racial minority where it is not


Every now and then, America generates the perfect media storm. The death of Trayvon Martin was one such, featuring just about every hot-button law and order issue you could imagine: guns and neighbourhood vigilantes, self-defence and the right to carry concealed weapons. And of course, permeating everything, race.

Out loud, race was barely mentioned during the month-long trial, but it hung over proceedings like a poisonous vapour. History is likely to add the Martin case to a long line stretching from the pre-civil rights era show trials of blacks subjected to Jim Crow justice, through to the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King in 1992, and the ultimate media circus of the OJ Simpson trial two years later.

And if the topic of race was not explicitly raised, that was because no one needed to be reminded that had Trayvon Martin been white, his fatal confrontation with George Zimmerman might never have happened. And, of course, had the six-person jury been all-black instead of all-white, the verdict might well have been different. But not necessarily. The difference is that, unlike in the parodies of justice in the segregated South where blacks were automatically convicted if accused of a crime against a white, or in the King and Simpson cases, this time the strictly legal outcome – the acquittal of Zimmerman by his peers – feels right.

But what about the spirit of the law, one may ask, as opposed to its letter? Trials though are not morality plays; those who seek such catharsis should go to the theatre, not to a courtroom. On this occasion the law has not been an ass.

Well before Saturday evening’s verdict, impartial expert opinion leant to the view that even if Florida’s permissive self-defence laws were removed from the equation, the case for second-degree murder – requiring proof that even if the crime was not premeditated, Mr Zimmerman had displayed evil intent and hatred when he shot Mr Martin – simply was not being made.

Nonetheless, the judge allowed the prosecution to seek conviction on the lesser charge of manslaughter. But the jury threw that out too. The plain truth is that no one can say for sure what happened on that rainy Sunday evening of 26 February 2012 in the gated community of Sanford, Florida. There were no eyewitnesses, and it was never established whose voice, whether Zimmerman’s or Martin’s, was screaming for help in the background of the call to the emergency services. In a criminal court, a defendant’s guilt must be shown “beyond reasonable doubt”. Prosecutors failed to clear that fundamental hurdle.

Given America’s multi-tiered legal system, this may not be the end of the affair. Under the criminal law of Florida, Zimmerman has been acquitted. But the Justice Department in Washington faces intense pressure from civil rights groups to bring federal charges against him, under existing hate-crime legislation.

It is also possible that the Martin family could seek monetary redress for the loss of their son in civil court, where evidentiary standards are much lower. That indeed occurred in the Simpson case. This time, however, there has been no similar travesty of justice, and either course – whether civil or federal – would smack of double jeopardy. “The jury has spoken,” President Obama said at the weekend, as he urged calm. And, he could have added, one jury is enough.

As it is, and despite the acquittal, George Zimmerman’s life has probably been changed for ever. He is currently in hiding, a marked man who is now a target for a hothead’s vigilante justice – what he was accused of meting out to Trayvon Martin. He will, it appears, get his gun back, and as his lawyer Mark O’Mara drily noted: “There’s even more reason now, isn’t there?”

Even so, this case will surely not have the same impact on race relations in the US as the Rodney King case did, still less the 1968 murder of Martin Luther King, when entire cities went up in flames. Yes, there has been heated rhetoric, claims that the bad old days were never truly banished. But the protests and demonstrations in the 24 hours after the verdict was handed down – heartfelt yet almost entirely peaceful – surely tell a more accurate story.

The death of Trayvon Martin has proved that race is still a factor in national life – but name one country on earth which has a significant racial minority where it is not a factor. Beyond doubt race relations in the US have greatly improved. But there is still much to be done. If it is nonsense to argue that Zimmerman’s acquittal proves that the “New South” is as bad as the bigoted old one, it is equally absurd to pretend that, even after the election of a black president, the US has advanced to sunlit, post-racial uplands. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama remarked when the case first hit the headlines, 15 months ago. The worries of minority parents about how their children will be treated by a society whose institutions were forged and still mostly run by whites, persist even now, half a century after America’s civil rights revolution.

And one final, depressing thought. If the US had sensible gun laws, Trayvon Martin would not have died, and no one would have heard of George Zimmerman. Alas, even if you got rid of race in America, you’d never get rid of guns.

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own