This is made clear in a blog post by Jeralyn Merrit, at Talk Left.* “It’s time to recognize this case for what it was,” she writes, “an unfortunate encounter between two people, each of whom found the other’s actions suspicious.” In other words, a single, distinct moment, removed from its cultural and historical background, framed only by the whims of fortune. “Whether Martin was black, white or purple was not a factor at the time of the shooting.” Fair enough. But how long was that, exactly? One second? Five? Race was clearly a factor before the shooting, though, a more indeterminate period of time that stretches from Zimmerman’s initial profiling of Martin, all the way back to the 17th Century, if not before.
Certainly, Jeralyn Merrit is a legal expert, and it’s not surprising that she focuses on the case that was before the jury. It’s one thing to ignore the other side, though, and quite another to acknowledge and then disparage it: “I am very disappointed that the President has chosen to endorse those who have turned a case of assault and self-defense into a referendum on race and civil rights.” (Of course, it could be argued that there are those who have taken a case with clear racial and civil rights implications and turned it into a simple assault trial.) It’s even worse to misinterpret the President’s personal experiences:
By the President comparing himself to Martin 35 years ago, is he saying he would have responded as Martin did, and physically attacked someone for following him? I hope not because our laws do not allow such conduct.
Of course he’s not saying that, nor is he suggesting it. He is saying that he may very well have been targeted, as Martin was. This is not a surprising observation, nor a new one. Brent Staples, for example, was writing about it in 1986, in “Black Men and Public Space.”
Such a glaring misreading throws into high relief the cognitive divide that separates Americans. Make no mistake: the divide exists, all accusations of Obama singlehandedly “tearing apart the country” notwithstanding. (I challenge any Conservative to point to a time when we were a racially unified nation. The Confederacy doesn’t count.)
This is an awfully large aspect of the case to ignore, but Merrit manages it. Even when she does enter into racial territory, it’s confined to strict legal terminology:
I am all for protesting the racial disparity in our criminal justice system. But put the focus where it belongs: On arbitrary and unfair laws that disproportionately affect minorities, police misconduct, too much discretion vested in prosecutors, and overly harsh sentencing laws and guidelines.
So far, so good. But by focusing only on the de jure—which, to be fair, is her specialty—she ignores the de facto, the wider cultural and historical trends which are even now contributing to peoples’ perceptions of the case, and which have fed the legal disparities that she bemoans. Not to mention the prevalence of Black urban crime, which Conservatives like to use as a red herring to “prove” that Liberals don’t really care about race. It’s all part of the same picture, although those who showcase Black crime statistics in their arguments never seem to go the whole way and discus what they mean. The prefer to let the numbers speak for themselves, which, in the absence of other considerations, leads to only one conclusion: Black males are inherently criminal. Perhaps this is a feature of such reporting, and not a bug.
The President was discussing why the Black community viewed the case the way it did. Whether or not that view is justified—I think it is—the fact remains that a large and intricate background sets off the object that is the George Zimmerman trial, and the President did the right thing when he called attention to it. Good for him.
* Thanks to Whiskey Fire for bringing this to my attention!