3 Things You Need to Know About the Trayvon Martin Case


Let’s get this out of the way first. I’m white. I was born working class but am lucky to have been able to move from that to be firmly middle class. Though I mistrust the police, I do not know what it is like to fear them, except, on occasion, with regard to my fiancé. I know that there is racism in the world, but I don’t experience it as a part of my daily life. Not as something that fundamentally affects how I view the world.

So I have no intention of telling anyone that they aren’t right to be upset or scared about the Zimmerman verdict.

That being said, I do think there has been some good commentary that people on all sides of this issue would do well to understand. Pieces claiming that the media is biased or that the court system is racist are not among them. It’s not that those things aren’t true—they are. It’s just that they are so painfully obvious. And, more importantly, that:

1. Both “sides” of the commentary are right.

In the weeks of the Zimmerman trial, I have seen people who rail against the current court system for imprisoning black people en masse for drug offenses forget that the same systemic racism applies in all cases, not just the War on Drugs. It’s not as if somehow, magically, when it’s not about drugs, that judges and juries and prosecutors and defense attorneys drop their racial biases. It’s not as if we can forget the fact that Zimmerman probably was trailing Martin because he “looked suspicious,” but he “looked suspicious” to him in part because he was black. Zimmerman probably wouldn’t have followed Martin if he weren’t black, and that’s not necessarily saying anything about Zimmerman, just about the society that we live in.

At the same time, however, the media coverage of this event has been a madhouse. Deceitful, shamelessly biased, and manipulating information, data, and audio before the trial even started. The Martin family hired publicist Ryan Julison to help get the case national coverage, and Julison is incredibly gifted at his job. But that means that most of the information that people are absorbing is either tainted strongly one way or, in reaction to that bias, in another way. And the reactionary is just as bad, if not worse, than the original.

2. Neither of those things has bearing on this case

Saying that the media is biased does not make Zimmerman not guilty. Saying that the court system is racist does not necessarily mean that he is. What determines whether Zimmerman is guilty or not guilty in the eyes of the law is only what evidence there is against him compared with what the law says is okay.

I must point out that saying if Martin had been white or Zimmerman black or any other racial combination would have made this case different is a counterfactual. No one can say that something would have happened based on things that didn’t happen.

However, the important thing to take away here is that even though these two things had little to no bearing on the case,

3. They definitely would have if we reduced protections of the accused

It shocks and terrifies me that people who are actively working against racism in our judiciary actually want to remove protections like the presumption of innocence, beyond a reasonable doubt, and protection against double jeopardy.

Do you think black people would be safe in such a system? How often is a black man presumed to be guilty simply because he is black? That problem is not showing signs of slowing down. It would be an absurd mistake to remove what few procedural protections people have, no matter how small. The media was on Martin’s side this time, but historically, we know that such an alliance is a rare occurrence, and letting news, mass hysteria, and racism drive the “judicial process” has not led to good outcomes in the past.

Yes, the media was terrible in this case, and our court systems are run by racist people and therefore are racist themselves. But the reason the system is designed this way is to filter as much of that out as it can to reach an equitable outcome. It’s not perfect, and there may be ways to improving that system, but removing protections of the accused is the absolute worst way to go about it if you care at all about justice for people of color.