Shaking My Head: The Zimmerman Verdict and Race

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I'm thinking about the George Zimmerman verdict in Florida. Who isn't? For a few weeks, many of us have been watching the trial, closely or in passing, word-for-word or in highlighted bits on the evening news. Zimmerman, an armed neighborhood watch volunteer, patrolling his housing complex one evening, spots a young man named Trayvon Martin, who appears not to belong. (Martin, as it turns out, does belong; he is visiting his father, who lives in the complex.) Zimmerman calls the police and is told not to get out of his vehicle. He does anyway, and a confrontation ensues. Zimmerman is injured, and Martin is shot dead. Zimmerman is white, and Martin is black.

July 13, 2013 - Sanford, FL, USA - George Zimmerman leaves the courtroom a free man after being found not guilty, on the 25th day of his trial at the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center, in Sanford, Florida, Saturday, July 13, 2013. Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teen, in 2012. (Credit Image: © Joe Burbank/MCT/ZUMAPRESS.com)

Zimmerman was tried for murder in a Florida state court. He and his lawyers claimed self-defense, and he was ultimately acquitted. The trial was televised. I don't usually watch a lot of television, but for a number of reasons, I followed this one. I watched bits and pieces as I could, and I took in some of the commentary (my husband is a legal commentator, so I watched him whenever possible). I am interested in race relations in America, though I certainly don't consider myself an expert or even particularly knowledgeable about the issue.

We have a young woman visiting us from Belgium this summer. She is a friend of a friend, here to work on her English and see some of the sights. I took her and my oldest daughter to Washington, DC for a couple of days last week, and the three of us toured the Capitol, biked the Mall, and visited the Smithsonian museums. One night, alone in my hotel room, I turned on the television and saw the evening report of Anderson Cooper, one of CNN's news anchors whom I particularly like.

Cooper, that night, was covering the day's testimony in the Zimmerman trial. He replayed some of the testimony of a young mother who lives in Zimmerman's housing complex. As I watched, open-mouthed, she recounted a harrowing incident in which her apartment had been burglarized by two young African-American men. She had hidden in the closet with her infant son, ready with a pair of rusty scissors in her hands to defend herself. She was unhurt, and the burglars were never apprehended.

And I, open-mouthed and alone in my room at the Marriott, and reasonably schooled in the general law of evidence, thought to myself,One of Zimmerman's neighbors is afraid of young African-American men because she was burglarized by two of them. How is that relevant, admissible evidence in Zimmerman's trial? How on earth is the prosecution just sitting by listening to this, and not objecting? How is the judge allowing the jury to hear this?

And then I thought, I'm not admitted to practice law in Florida. I don't know their local rules. I have not been following this story closely enough to understand. Cooper explained that this woman was on the stand as a character witness on Zimmerman's behalf. He had comforted her after the event and had instructed her as to how to defend herself against future attacks. She wanted the world to know that he was a good guy, a hero, a neighborhood helper, and this unfortunate incident in which he had been forced to shoot a black kid did not change any of that. Black kids are a danger, and people like Zimmerman protect against that danger.

I still don't get it. I probably never will. My Belgian guest doesn't get it either. I can't explain to her the consequences of being White and Not White in America. I find it as baffling as she does. We are born with a skin color. The amount of light your skin reflects or doesn't reflect has no inherent bearing on your character. But in the United States, darker skin seems to carry a rebuttable presumption that you are prone to crime, and that you can therefore be stopped, questioned, and searched at any time.

And the fact remains that if Trayvon Martin had been allowed to complete his walk to his father's home that night, without being stopped and questioned, he would still be alive. If Zimmerman had followed the police's instructions on the telephone that evening, none of this would have happened.

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