Almost all African-Americans in a recent poll disagreed with the verdict finding George Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder. Most white Americans agreed with the verdict.
One possible reason: we were following two different stories.
When I thought about the George Zimmerman trial and Trayvon Martin’s death, I mostly thought about the burden of proof in criminal trials (beyond a reasonable doubt), and about who was screaming in the background of that 9-1-1 call. In other words, this case wouldn’t have been very interesting to me if not for the media circus around it.
But President Obama last week said that many African-Americans saw the case as being about something different. They saw larger patterns at play — patterns that they recognized from their daily lives.
“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 doesn’t go away.”
One rough way to describe what Obama was describing: racial profiling.
There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator….
But here’s something else Obama said that was very interesting: young African-American men are “disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence.” Also, he said, “there are these statistics out there that show that African-American boys are more violent.”
Here is where perspectives matter.
Let’s use a hypothetical micro story, to move away from the specifics of George Zimmerman. Imagine you live in a neighborhood where a lot of cars are getting stolen. The reliable reports say that the cars are being stolen by an African-American male.
If African-American males are rare in your neighborhood, residents might be more wary of any black male walking down the street than of any non-black, or any female. This isn’t necessarily because the neighbors think black men are naturally predisposed to crime, but because the data they have on the local car thief says he’s black.
From the perspective of the wary car owner, this isn’t racism.
Now imagine you’re the average African-American male, who is walking a few blocks from your house, but still in this neighborhood. You’re not a car thief. You’ve never broken the law. None of your friends are criminals. In fact, your uncle just got his car stolen last week, and your mom just had to shell out to buy The Club.
But still, when you walk down the street, you get sideways glances. You see someone pull up to park, look at you, and then drive on, just to park around the corner, away from you.
This isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a kid, obviously. But think about how it feels to him. He’s not being treated like an individual. He’s being judged by an outward trait that he didn’t choose. And he’s totally innocent. It’s not fair.
That’s what Obama was talking about, I think. This sort of thing happens on small and large scales every day, with the level of suspicion far beyond what’s reasonable. The effect on society is destructive, and it sets a vicious circle into motion.
This all gives us a clue as to how views of the verdict can be so colored by race.
Sometimes, cases like Trayvon’s are hard to talk about productively, because we’re not really arguing about the same story. What story you hear when you follow the case depends on the experiences you’ve lived through. And your experiences are determined, in part, by the color of your skin.