|EDINBURG, July 21 - Pundits quickly took to the airways decrying or celebrating the verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial for the death of Trayvon Martin. Was it self-defense or murder? Perhaps not even Zimmerman knows.
The judge said the prosecution could use profiling as an issue so long as it did not include the issue of race. But that is absurd. The case is controversial because race is at the heart of it. From the moment Zimmerman saw Martin, the issue was race.
The question keeps being asked: “If Zimmerman had seen a young white male walking through the neighborhood wearing a hoodie on a rainy evening, would he have gotten out of the car and confronted him as he confronted Martin?”
But Martin was black. I mean, one can look at George Zimmerman and tell he is a racist.
Okay, that is absurd. Racists do not have a specific look. It might be possible to tell someone is a racist by how a person acts, but not simply by looks.
For years, “scientists” tried to identify facial features indicative of a criminal--how far apart the eyes were set, their shape, the shape of the jaw, the slope of the forehead. It was junk science then, and it is junk science today.
However, in a sense, that is precisely what George Zimmerman did. Looking at Trayvon Martin, he did not see a young black male; he saw a criminal. We could say shame on Zimmerman, but that misses a far larger issue.
It is not the judicial system alone that is broken. When it comes to issues of race, our society is broken. Millions of whites look at an African American and see a criminal. Similarly, many people look at Hispanics and see an illegal alien.
These presumptions may not be genetically inscribed into Americans, but they unquestionably are culturally inscribed. We look at people; and based solely on their race or ethnicity, we make judgments about them.
Sadly, our society and particularly the institutions in our society function in ways that not only discriminates against but oppresses minorities. The Zimmerman case serves only as an example. But, there is no doubt in my mind, had the ethnicities been reversed, and a black neighborhood watch person confronted and killed a white boy, the Sanford police would have arrested him on the spot. In all probability, knowing “southern justice” well (look at what did not happen to the white men who murdered Emmett Till) he also would have been convicted.
Of course, it is not just the South. Why are the police officers who unmercifully beat Rodney King not in prison? What would the verdict have been had King been white and the officers black?
Why is Marissa Alexander serving 20 years for firing warning shots into the air to keep her abusive husband at bay? Even though, unlike George Zimmerman, Alexander had no prior arrests and no one was injured, she was convicted and sentenced. Because she was black?
If we say “no,” how do we explain the acquittal of white Ralph Wald who shot and killed his wife for having sex with another man?
Certainly statistical evidence supports the proposition minorities are treated differently than whites. African Americans and Hispanics are far more likely to be stopped by police than are whites; far more likely to be arrested and charged with a crime; more likely to stand trial; more likely to be convicted; more likely to be sent to prison; and sentenced to longer terms even when comparing sentences of whites and minorities for commission of similar crimes.
New York City’s controversial “stop and frisk” policy serves as a superb example. Although African Americans and Hispanics comprise a combined 52 percent of the population, they comprise 84 percent of those stopped by New York police according to New York City Police Department data.
Police often stop an African American or Hispanic with a presumption of guilt. Filmmaker Shaka King stated in an interview the last time he was stopped by police he was asked two questions; not whether he had drugs, but “Where are the drugs?” Rather than asking whether he had been arrested, they asked “When was the last time you were arrested?” Presumption of guilt.
Do African Americans and Hispanics commit more crimes that whites? Maybe; maybe not. They do commit more of the kinds of crimes for which people are sent to prison. That is, for example, embezzlers at Bank of America or Goldman Sachs do not go to prison for their crimes. In fact, they are not even charged. Selling drugs is a different matter.
Then there are differences in arrests and prosecutions for cocaine powder and crack cocaine. Both are addictive and dangerous. But cocaine powder is the drug of choice for whites, especially affluent whites; while crack cocaine is favored by the “lesser elements,” comprised disproportionately of minorities. So, off to prison for a poor African American possessing a few grams of crack; and, for a few grams of powder, a “stern warning” for the affluent preppy white guy.
That raises another question we don’t want to examine. Why are African Americans and Hispanics disproportionately poor? First, we have all of the stereotypical answers offered by the bigots. But the real answer is our society systematically discriminates against racial/ethnic minorities -“institutional racism”.
We see it, for example, in the substandard schools. Where do we have overcrowded classrooms? In poor neighborhoods. Old, worn out educational facilities? Poor neighborhoods. And who lives in poor neighborhoods? Disproportionately, minorities.
Which schools are Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel closing? Schools in poor neighborhoods inhabited by minorities. Democrats can be racists too, even those who have worked for an African American.
The unemployment rate for African Americans is twice the national rate, and well over twice the rate for whites. Even when controlling for education, African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to be unemployed than whites with the same level of education.
It is not just the criminal justice system that is broken. When it comes to issues of race and ethnicity, or entire society is broken. People say the problem is with African Americans or Hispanics. They are wrong; whites are the problem.
Sadly, the vast majority of whites are not willing to do a damned thing about it.
Samuel Freeman is a political science professor in the Rio Grande Valley. His Left is Right column appears regularly in the Guardian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.