Let’s face it, America has not done a very good job of reconciling its ugly and painful history of racism and oppression against African Americans and other people of color. The predominant attitude seems to be that what happened in the past stays in the past and that history has little to no bearing upon current happenings within our society. Sadly, as illustrated in the tragic murder of Trayvon Martin and in the aftermath of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, this could not be further from the truth. In this case, race played a significant role in the fact that Trayvon Martin, a young African American male, was profiled and stereotyped by Zimmerman as a criminal who was “up to no good,” as he walked in the rain through a gated community in Sanford, Florida.
The lingering perception of the Black man as criminal and suspicious has plagued young African American men since the days of slavery and beyond. In fact, throughout the South following the abolition of slavery, laws were created that made standard behavior by Black men a crime and led to high rates of incarceration for that segment of the population. Black men were routinely imprisoned for being “up to no good” and doing things like talking too loud, spitting on the sidewalk, being unemployed or hanging out late at night. The State of Florida, which did not create its first prison until after the Civil War, saw its prisons swell with Black men and boys, in many cases as a result of the commission of minor offenses or survival crimes as a result of living in poverty. The criminalization of Black men in Florida continues to be a problem as Blacks represent 16.6% of the population, but nearly 50% of the prison population, comprising over 43,000 prisoners. Understanding the racial backdrop of the criminal justice population in Florida and the highly probable perception of Black men as being prone to criminality is crucial to analyzing the underlying causes of Trayvon Martin’s fatal encounter with Zimmerman and the role that race played throughout the process.
Although there was no evidence that Trayvon Martin was engaged in criminal activity on that fateful evening in February of 2012, the evidence suggests that he was watched and followed by a “strange man” who failed to identify himself as a neighborhood watch volunteer. The result of the profiling of Trayvon Martin by Zimmerman was a confrontation that led to the murder of Trayvon Martin. As a result of Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law, there was a six week delay in Zimmerman being arrested or prosecuted, and this occured only after nationwide protests and demonstrations. The law, which was enacted in 2005, seemingly protects an individual who has a fear of death or bodily harm by allowing a person to defend him or her and to not retreat during a confrontation, but rather to stand one’s ground and to use deadly force, if necessary.
During Zimmerman’s murder trial, his defense team consistently portrayed him as a victim who feared for his safety during the confrontation with Trayvon Martin and that this fear of a “menacing” young Black man provided justification to use deadly force. Notably, the language from the Stand Your Ground law was included in the 27 pages of jury instructions and unbeknownst to the general public, may have helped to set the stage for Zimmerman’s acquittal.
The instructions read, “In deciding whether Zimmerman was justified in the use of deadly force, you must judge him by the circumstances by which he was surrounded at the time the force was used. The danger facing Zimmerman need not have been actual; however, to justify the use of deadly force, the appearance of danger must have been so real that a reasonably cautious and prudent person under the same circumstances would have believed that the danger could be avoided only through the use of that force. Based upon appearances, Zimmerman must have actually believed that the danger was real.”
While some may view the Stand Your Ground law as being useful and necessary to protect oneself from bodily harm or death, the law’s use in supporting the unsettling actions of Zimmerman in the shooting of Trayvon Martin illustrate the dangers of such ill-conceived laws and the harms such laws have on our society. As Dr. King so eloquently stated in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” Under such a vague and subjective legal standard, and given the hyper-fear of young Black men by members of mainstream society, this law arguably puts them in danger of suffering a similar fate as Trayvon Martin with little hope that perpetrators will be held accountable under the law. And as in this case, if only the shooter lives to tell the story, one may never get to the truth of whether deadly force was justified.
As history has shown us in relation to laws legalizing slavery and racial segregation in this country, simply because a law has been enacted by a state legislature or the federal government does not automatically ensure that it is fair and just on its face or will be fair and just in its application. While as an attorney and a law professor, I respect the rule of law, I also recognize that some laws require critical analyses and examination to determine whether such laws are in the interests of justice or merely serve as a means of bypassing principles of justice, fairness, and accountability. This type of rigorous examination of the impacts of the Stand Your Ground law in Florida is sorely needed and in fact, justice demands such an exploration.
We owe it to the young people in our society to ensure that the laws on the books are designed to protect them, rather than facilitate harm to their safety and well-being. As long as states like Florida have Stand Your Ground laws in place, young people in general, and young Black men in particular are not safe and are at risk of being profiled and subjected to violent encounters because of “the color of their skin” and not the “content of their character.”
Talking about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman (Mary Turck, 2013)
OPINION | Sidestepping race in Zimmerman’s trial only puts a bandaid on America’s racial wound (Lolla Mohammed Nur, 2013)