The Zimmerman trial and race
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by Bill Barth
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Why did the George Zimmerman trial in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin so capture the
attention of the nation?
Certainly one reason is the wall-to-wall coverage by the cable
television “news” channels. Most of the thousands of hours those channels devoted to the case had very little to do with factual reporting.
Rather, it was almost exclusively a succession of babbling talking heads spouting opinions based on little more knowledge than the
common person on the street.
In doing so the cable channels roiled emotions and thus must
bear some of the responsibility for the divisiveness surrounding the eventual verdict. When criminal justice becomes a pawn in ratings
wars, something has gone deeply wrong among those who pretend to present the news. There’s a big difference between news and opinion
— or, at least, there should be within news organizations. The cable channels have blurred the line beyond recognition, motivated
by profit — a serious disservice to the people.
But the media circus is not the only reason
this case sparks controversy. Now and then a case comes along that shines a bright light on the continuing racial divide which exists
in America. The Rodney King incident comes to mind. So does the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
These cases, like the Trayvon Martin incident, lay bare the fact that many Americans see the world around them from vastly different
perspectives, largely separated by race. Readers will remember that while whites took scant notice of the Rodney King beating, blacks
staged demonstrations and in some places rioted in the neighborhoods. Likewise, in the Simpson murder trial, when the not guilty verdict
was delivered, polls showed whites thought the former football star committed the crime while blacks believed he was innocent.
The Trayvon Martin shooting signaled similar responses. The minority community, in Florida and elsewhere, expresses a level of outrage
at the trial’s outcome which clearly is not mirrored by the majority.
This is a fair question
to ask: Nearly a hundred fifty years after the Civil War ended the stain on America’s spirit — slavery — why do racial distinctions
still separate Americans? That’s the real question worth asking in the wake of the Zimmerman acquittal.
The question, also, is not just skin-deep. Statistically, race still makes a pronounced difference in the social condition.
A century and a half after the Civil War blacks and whites are separated in significant ways. Unemployment is higher for minorities,
aggravated during the ongoing economic turndown. A racial gap continues to plague the public schools, with white students achieving
at a higher rate than black students. Unwed motherhood is much higher for African American girls. Rates of incarceration are much
higher for African American males. The possibility of becoming a victim of gun violence is higher for inner-city black men.
And in most racially diverse communities there are clearly defined and separate geographic areas occupied by whites and blacks. No,
it’s not backed by force of law anymore, and more mixed blocks evolve every year. But the old lines still exist. That’s not an accident
or a coincidence.
Look, I'm not pointing out anything new, nor am I denying that great
strides toward racial equality have occurred in America. And I certainly do not claim to have the answers to bridging the remaining
I do, however, see the potential for value in the emotions stirred by cases like
the Trayvon Martin shooting. Most of the time people go about their business and give little thought to the damage done to America’s
spirit and its human capital by the ongoing racial gaps. If anything, people tend to shrug it off as some unknown and simplistic cultural
difference. There’s a yearning to believe racial issues that brought America to bloody war 150 years ago have all been put behind
the country, though clearly that is not the case.
Some day America may resolve its issues
and cross the racial divide, but that day still seems a long way off. In many ways, the races still live in separate and unequal worlds.
There are many complex reasons for that, but the truth is there for all who are willing to see it in stark statistical numbers.
One positive outcome from the Martin shooting could occur through renewed national and community dialogue. The conversation would
be uncomfortable because it would pick at open sores for all Americans, black and white. There are no simple solutions, no easy explanations.
Institutional racism has been prohibited by law. Yet plenty of cultural and human failures remain. The institutional fix was the easy
one. The human fix is infinitely more challenging.
In my view, here’s the ultimate baseline:
If America ever is to fully live up to its creed, it must be (1) color-blind, and (2) equal.
Today it is neither.
Tomorrow is up to all of us.