What if Trayvon Martin were white and George Zimmerman black, would the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial be different? That is the question many African-Americans and others are asking in the aftermath of the George Zimmerman’s ‘Not Guilty’ verdict.
The one undisputed fact that came out of the trial is that an armed George Zimmerman stalked an unarmed Trayvon Martin and ended up killing him. Zimmerman is white Hispanic. Trayvon Martin, the slain youth, was black. A jury set him free of all charges in the case.
Many feel African-Americans are not treated equally in the eyes of the law. There have been protests, vigils, and debates in many cities around the country in the aftermath of this decision.
President Barack Obama spoke Friday about the race issue and the state and local laws, and in particular about Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” statute in connection with the case. He said perhaps the country needs to examine these laws that encourage the sort of confrontation that led to Martin’s death.
“I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see if it — if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than defuse potential altercations.”
Do these kinds of laws promote peace and security, he asked.
“If Trayvon Martin was of age and was armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we think he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened. And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems we need to rethink.”
Mr. Obama was speaking about the angry and painful fallout especially in the African-American community from the ruling. He said it was important to understand the context in which many African-Americans were reacting. Historically, African-American males have been looked at with distrust, he stated. Mr. Obama said that as a young African-American male, he, too, had experienced being followed in department stores and looked at with suspicion.
‘‘It’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away,’’ he said.
He said historically African-American men have been mistrusted in numerous everyday situations while going about routine business. Often they are closely watched and even followed in department stories. In elevators they invite nervous reactions. People lock their cars when they see African-American men walking down the street.
Mr. Obama said he himself had been subjected to those offensive experiences before he became a public figure. ‘‘It’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear,’’ he said.
He said Trayvon Martin could have been him 35 years ago.
“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that — that doesn’t go away.”
Mr. Obama also pointed that historically the African-American community is acutely aware that there is a history of racial disparity in the application of the country’s criminal laws ranging from the death penalty to the enforcement of drug laws.
He said given this context, protests and demonstrations were plausible as long as they remained non-violent.
“I think it’s understandable that there have been demonstrations, vigils and protests, and some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through as long as it remains nonviolent. If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family.”
He emphasized that the African-American community is also aware that young black men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system. He said the community sees the reasons for this in a historical context.
“We understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.”
The president refused discussion of legal questions about the Florida case.
“The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed that in a — in a case such as this, reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works.”
The president said “it’s time ‘‘for all of us to do some soul searching,’’
He suggested it was important to have these conversations in churches, workplaces and within families. People should ask themselves, ‘‘Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?’’
Perhaps people also need to focus on the question: “What if Trayvon Martin was white and George Zimmerman black?”
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