Bridging the racial divide after the Zimmerman verdict

—F. Michael Higginbotham

The recent acquittal of George Zimmerman for shooting and killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin has provoked outrage and widespread (yet mostly peaceful) protests from racially mixed, but predominantly black, crowds. At the same time, conservative commentators, on local and national media, most of whom are white, have expressed support for the verdict along with the belief that Zimmerman acted in self-defense. The protests and commentary reflect a huge racial divide where 86% of blacks, but only 30% of whites, are dissatisfied with the trial’s outcome.

While some supporters of Zimmerman’s self-defense claim have expressed genuine remorse over the tragic death of an unarmed black teenager, many justify Martin’s death by insisting that he must have done something threatening. Others seem to dismiss the tragic loss of life by accusing blacks of exploiting the case to continue old habits of complaining about contrived racism.

Protesters view the verdict as another in a long line of cases where white perpetrators of violence against blacks go unpunished, reminiscent of the horrendous 1955 murder of black teenager Emmett Till, who was brutally beaten and killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Even President Obama, who rarely comments on race, weighed in on the tragedy by explaining that most black males in America, including himself, have experienced racial profiling, followed around department stores while innocently shopping, heard car doors locked in fear as they casually crossed the street, and been subjected to other forms of race-based fear. Obama’s sentiment reflects the basis for the fury of many blacks who believe black males in America are presumed guilty until proven innocent. They feel certain that Martin’s color, rather than his behavior, prompted Zimmerman’s suspicion and actions.

As one who has spent a career studying and teaching law while simultaneously writing texts on race, I view this tragedy as an opening to bridge the racial divide. It is not easy to discuss race across racial lines. Yet, no dialogue on race is possible unless all sides are similarly willing to listen and learn. Blacks need to acknowledge that America today is a far more just society than it was in the days of Emmett Till. We have ended Jim Crow segregation. We have instituted anti-discrimination laws in public accommodations, voting, and housing, and implemented affirmative action programs in education and employment. Even so, whites need to recognize that serious racial inequities still exist. Wealth accumulation for blacks is one twentieth of what it is for whites. Black unemployment, poverty, and homelessness are twice that of whites. Although white Americans use marijuana at the same rate as blacks, African-Americans are four times more likely to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession. Among those attempting to utilize Florida’s “stand your ground law”, which provides additional protections in claims of self-defense, 59% of defendants have been exonerated when their victims were white, while 73% of defendants have gone free when their victims were black. Nationally, white defendants in “stand your ground states” are over four times more likely to be acquitted when the victim is black than when the victim is white.

These disparities have been persistent, but they need not be permanent. Americans should be grateful to all those who have spoken out in a constructive manner on the controversial issues of race in America. With stark divisions rampant after the Zimmerman verdict, this is an opportunity to rid the country of the Ghosts of Jim Crow once and for all, an opening to bridge the divide that should not be overlooked.

F. Michael Higginbotham is the author of Race Law: Cases, Commentary, and Questions and Ghosts of Jim Crow: Ending Racism in Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2013). Race Law is a textbook used in law schools worldwide, and Ghosts of Jim Crow offers solutions to America’s race problem.

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