While the jury for George Zimmerman’s trial could decide on a manslaughter charge, it wouldn’t be surprising if Zimmerman walks away a free man. The prosecution simply hasn’t been able to disprove his claim that he killed Trayvon Martin in self-defense, and Zimmerman has looked ever more the overzealous bungler than the bigoted murderer.
There seems to be a general consensus that even if it was self-defense, Zimmerman should not be acquitted “because he started it,” which is to say, he got out of his car and approached Trayvon Martin. And it is true that if Zimmerman hadn’t processed Martin as suspicious because of his skin color, then Martin would still be alive.
But we need to be more careful about what we are thinking of justice as here. Here’s a thought experiment that shows the flaws of the “he started it” argument.
A 30-year-old black man we’ll call Darnell Haskins, not especially tall, and not in great shape, lives in a mostly black town where young white toughs from the town across the river have been committing petty burglaries lately. Haskins is a self-appointed neighborhood “mayor” of sorts who likes to keep an eye on things.
Haskins sees a white 17-year-old we’ll call Greg Pruitt walking through, follows him grumbling about these “young crackers” and stops him. It turns out Pruitt is just minding his own business visiting a friend, doesn’t take kindly to being detained, and one thing leads to another. Pruitt, six feet tall and not unaccustomed to defending himself, is on top of Haskins banging his head on the ground. Haskins, losing the battle and desperate, takes out his gun and fires. Pruitt dies.
All will agree that this is a reasonable reconstruction of what likely happened that night in Sanford, Florida—except with the races changed. So: how many people would think Haskins should spend his life in jail for murder – even though he started it?
Few. If anything, the gut feeling among many would be that we have to “understand” Haskins as reacting to centuries of white racism.
And that shows that what concerns Martin’s defenders is not justice in the abstract, but a class-action kind of justice, addressing the disproportionate violence and abuse against black men by law enforcement, school officials, or Zimmermans. People are hoping Zimmerman will be found guilty as a symbol of black grievance, and while that grievance is legitimate, first it’s something other than justice and second, even such a verdict wouldn’t change how America feels about black boys. Another thought experiment: if Zimmerman does get put away, the people who are supposed to be getting “teached” here will learn that a self-inflated twerp who didn’t know what he was in for ended up accidentally killing a black man and got sentenced far more harshly than he would have if he were white. Progress indeed.