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In America, Race Is More Than a Backdrop In America, Race Is More Than a Backdrop
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In America, Race Is More Than a Backdrop

by Madeleine Rogin

July 20, 2013

What happens when the topic of race is not allowed to be introduced in a murder trial where the victim is a black teenage boy? With George Zimmerman's acquittal of the murder of Trayvon Martin, we found out. 

As Lizette Alvarez wrote in the New York Times a week before the jury delivered their verdict, "Race only occasionally punctuated the proceedings. The judge made it clear that statements about race would be sharply limited and the term 'racial profiling' not allowed." By eliminating the possibility that the jury could consider race as a possible motive—or one of many factors that contributed to this murder, the judge did not allow the prosecution to give the jury a complete, honest account of Trayvon's murder.

Let's consider race: We could begin with the history and context of the State of Florida—home to America's oldest city, St. Augustine, a battleground in the fight for voting rights during what is commonly known as "Freedom Summer."

Then there are the facts: If the jury had been allowed to consider Zimmerman's racial attitudes in events leading up to the night that he killed Martin, we would have learned about the 46 calls to 911 he made to report "suspicious" activity, many times about the activity of young, black males. And, in speaking to some of those black males, we might have discovered that they felt threatened, even stalked, by Zimmerman.

When Zimmerman decided to follow Martin, after being told not to by the police dispatcher, he identified Martin as "suspicious"—not only because he was a stranger or a teenager, but also because he looked like the other "bad guys" he had been reporting in his 911 calls. Zimmerman may well believe that he did not engage in racial profiling when he decided to follow Martin, that he saw Martin as just a "punk" and not a "black punk." But that does not make it so.

The problem with a "colorblind" approach to this trial, aside from the fact that it disregards the history and context of the case, is it assumes that there was a moment for Zimmerman, in his assessment of Martin as he observed him walking through the neighborhood, that race was not present, was not, indeed, a determining factor of how he viewed Martin and the actions that followed. 

In truth, that moment does not exist in our country—for anyone.

From the moment a child is born in America, she learns something about race—from learning to differentiate between the race(s) of her parents and others, to grouping those with similar skin color attributes with one another, to observing the different hair textures and shades of skin in her immediate environment and in more social environments.

She inevitably picks up on messages about race from her parents, her neighborhood, her school, and from the media. This is true even for families that do not explicitly talk about race, or for those that promote ideas of colorblindness, the idea that it is best to ignore any "superficial" differences, such as race—an approach that is gaining popularity in our so-called "post-racial" society.

Consider a white child who is raised to ignore race, one who is told by her parents to treat everyone the same, regardless of skin color. This child may attend a school with a majority of other white students and teachers, and may only be exposed to books with white characters, written by white authors. As this child grows, she will begin to notice racial inequities, such as a correlation between neighborhoods less affluent than her own and people of color—or notice a disproportionate number of people of color in prison.

Based on the demographics at her school, education curriculum that does not include other voices, and negative images of people of color on television, the child may receive biased messages, such as the idea that white people are more educated or articulate. Because she's been told race does not matter, and no one is explaining these conflicting ideas to her—namely, if race is not important, why does our country remain segregated and unequal according to race—this child is left to draw her own conclusions, which will most likely not be based on a historic or systematic understanding of racism and how it works. 

For these reasons, she becomes an adult with biases, stereotypes, and prejudices that have never been brought to light. The way that she treats others—especially those who do not share her skin color—is inevitably influenced by these events of her upbringing. In other words, she may not talk openly about race, but that does not mean she is colorblind.

In some sense, the jury in this case is like the young white girl who is told not to consider race. Like that child, the jury was instructed to be colorblind as they considered Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence. They decided Zimmerman was innocent, accepting the possibility that he, like them, could be colorblind in his treatment of Trayvon Martin.

What if the roles had been reversed and Trayvon Martin had had the gun and pursued George Zimmerman? Do we really think there would have been a question about guilt or innocence in this case? In truth, many of us wouldn't even have been quick enough to follow the case because Martin’s guilt would have been concluded and a sentence quickly determined.

Studies show that in states with Stand Your Ground laws, the killing of black people by whites is more likely to be considered justified than the killing of white people by blacks. And, then too, the jury’s racial make-up is problematic. Who decided that a jury comprised almost exclusively of white women would be best suited to bring down a fair, “colorblind” verdict? It seems that somehow we are still equating whiteness with being simply American, or, even, human.

So, how do we get to justice? The first step is to acknowledge that race is more than a backdrop. We must face our own prejudices, biases, questions, and fears—not only in the case of Trayvon Martin, but for all of us as we work to build just, inclusive, equitable communities in an America that grows more diverse every day. 

Image via Ira Bostic / Shutterstock.com

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