There are good reasons why the Trayvon Martin case prompts such unease. One is that Trayvon was an unarmed black teenager and his killer was white and (legally) armed. Another is that the first black president of the United States ventured an early comment, saying that if he had had a son “he would look like Trayvon”.
In so saying, Barack Obama pinpointed the truth that a great many white Americans will see a young man up to no good before they see a president’s son. For all the civil rights advances over half a century, personified by the black family now residing in the White House, racism remains pernicious and entrenched.
To any liberal European – and for many Americans Europeans are by definition liberal – the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case will be not just troubling, but a travesty. Here was an unarmed juvenile who was killed by an armed vigilante, and the vigilante – George Zimmerman – gets off scot free. There are questions, too, about the time it took for the local police to investigate; about the defence counsel’s release of personal details about Trayvon, and the fact that of the six-member, all-female, jury, five were white. Lawyers have a far greater say in jury selection in US trials than here.
Not all is so clear-cut. The prosecution, according to many reports, was not well handled, with some witnesses doing themselves no favours. And the defendant was not the wealthy white man that the term “gated community” suggests, but a far from well-off Hispanic whose private estate had a crime problem.
Still, the verdict leaves the impression not just that it is acceptable for an individual in large parts of the US to take the law into his own hands, but that the life of a young black man is cheap. This incendiary case from central Florida – electorally, a swing district of a swing state – shows how far, despite Mr Obama’s election, the US still fails to practise racial equality.