A protester addresses the role of race in George Zimmerman’s trial at a July 14 rally. Photo by Michael Fleshman.
You can’t talk about the death of Trayvon Martin without talking about race.
Except in the courtroom where the man who shot him, George Zimmerman, was tried.
In an interview with Anderson Cooper last night, an anonymous member of the jury explained that she didn’t think race had anything to do with the case.
“I don’t think it’s really racial,” she said, going on to say that she believes “circumstances” of past neighborhood robberies are what made Zimmerman’s suspicious. The juror told CNN that she thinks Zimmerman would have reacted the “exact same way” to anyone doing what Trayvon did, no matter his race. “Anybody walking down the road stopping and turning and looking…is suspicious.”
This isn’t just one person—the juror told Cooper that no one on the jury never discussed race as part of the trial.
“I think all of us thought race did not play a role,” she said. “I saw it as a murder case.”
We’ll never know exactly what Zimmerman was thinking on the night of the fatal incident, but deciding whether someone is guilty of a crime inevitably requires trying to read minds—guilt hinges on intent. In Florida, the jury was asked to figure out whether Zimmerman had right to act in self-defense or whether he intentionally and maliciously killed Martin. It’s been shown time and time again that race plays an undeniable role in whether we view a stranger as dangerous and that—to quote a 2005 neuroscience study—Americans learn “through pervasive cultural cues to associate black people with fear.” Without considering race, the jury ignored one of the major components of that undoubtedly went into Zimmerman’s assumption that Martin was “suspicious.”
Why didn’t the jury consider race? Part of the answer has to be privilege—the jury was five white women and one Hispanic woman. As many writers have spelled out, white privilege allows white people to ignore race and fail to recognize when race influences events both mundane and major. Why did Zimmerman think Martin looked suspicious? Why did he decide to get out of his car and follow Martin? Why didn’t investigators do a thorough job collecting evidence? Why didn’t the local police look into murder charges until there was a national outcry? Racial attitudes play a role—both subconscious and systematic—in the answers to each of those questions and the jury should have considered how negative views of black men could have influenced both Zimmerman’s behavior and sloppy local police work.
But this privilege could have been partly countered if the prosecution had been able to talk directly about racial bias.
Instead, at the beginning of the trial, Judge Debra S. Nelson banned the lawyers in her courtroom from using the term “racial profiling.” Judge Nelson told the prosecutors that they could say Zimmerman “profiled” Martin—but that they would need to prove racial profiling occurred if it was going to be evidence in the case. This effectively shut down direct conversation about race in the court. Proving that racial profiling has occurred is a Herculean task in any situation. As law professor David Harris put it, when talking about evidence of racial profiling in Arizona’s controversial immigration law, “Proof is painstakingly built, and it takes time.” Months of time. And, typically, mountains of data. Here, the jury had only the testimony of a few character witnesses and the word of Zimmerman himself to try a figure out why he said he feared Trayvon Martin.
Forcing the jury to at least have racial issues on their radar may not have changed the verdict in this case. Numerous court-watchers have noted that the prosecution’s case was flimsy for various reasons. But changing “racial profiling” to just “profiling” fundamentally changes the discussion of what happened that night. The judge’s decision to nix race from the courtroom certainly influenced the jury’s perspective that race had no role whatsoever in the death of Trayvon Martin. This is exactly why it’s important to talk about race—not talking about race allows people to ignore its realities.