Battalora: Zimmerman verdict aligned with U.S. racial history
By Jacqueline Battalora August 9, 2013 9:04PM
Updated: September 12, 2013 6:22AM
The not guilty verdict for George Zimmerman in the controversial shooting death of a black teenager, a decision based on a provision of Florida’s “stand your ground” law, has raised race to the surface of the American conversation.
While on neighborhood watch patrol in February 2012, Zimmerman called police about a suspicious person, and a dispatcher instructed him to wait for police to arrive. Instead, he pursued Trayvon Martin, 17, and a physical altercation occurred during which Martin was fatally shot.
Zimmerman claimed the shooting was in self-defense because Martin had attacked him. Law enforcement did not pursue criminal charges against Zimmerman for weeks, and only after public pressure was he charged with murder and manslaughter. On July 13, a jury acquitted him of those charges.
Throughout the trial, covered in minute detail by the national cable news channels, pundits and lawyers were asked frequently about how much race played a role, if any, in the case. The question reveals a glaring misunderstanding of the workings of race in the U.S.
The question fails to acknowledge that race is always at play but arises out in dramatically different ways depending upon race, class, gender, sexuality and religion. For example, if every fact of the case were the same but Martin were white what might you expect to have occurred?
Would Zimmerman have tagged him as suspicious? Would a jury find it reasonable that Zimmerman acted against the instruction of the 911 operator and pursued a teenager who was white? Would the fact that the teen was white impact whether a jury thought it reasonable for Zimmerman to experience a threat of bodily harm?
Of course, race played a role in this sensationalized case. It played a central role in the circumstances that gave rise to the death of Martin, the trial of Zimmerman and the aftermath of the verdict.
Race always matters in America because the foundational laws, policies and practices of this country have made it so.
Only white people could become U.S. citizens through naturalization from the very first act of Congress in 1790 until 1952. Keeping naturalization a whites-only process for all those decades enabled nonwhites to be excluded from land ownership and employment in the public sector.
State after state prohibited persons of African, Chinese, Japanese and Mexican descent, among others, from testifying against a white person. Exclusion from access to citizenship and voting prevented nonwhites from posing a political threat and rendered them a continual pool of cheap labor.
These laws and policies gave material and symbolic value to white people — including the rights and privileges of citizenship, higher wages, access to less expensive land and the ability to act with impunity against a nonwhite person.
This history is the legacy of this country, and we live each day shaped by it. This history has a footprint upon Trayvon Martin’s death, the acquittal of George Zimmerman and almost every other aspect of contemporary social and political life.
Some can move about oblivious to the unearned advantages this history has provided, and continues to do so, while others endure as the recipients of unearned harms.
Martin’s death is but one of innumerable examples of the culturally pervasive message that nonwhite lives are less valued. This message is not owned only by the jurors in the Zimmerman trial nor by Florida, but by this nation as a whole.
The history of institutionalized white advantage is one of which too few are aware. Many people simply accept it as natural because of the way it has been established by the laws, policies and practices of the U.S. from its founding.
A contemporary result is that the unearned benefits available to whites are simply seen as “the norm” or “the way it is.”
Take, for example, “nude” colored pantyhose or “flesh” colored bandages. Whose nude body do these most closely resemble? The products are labeled as if white bodies are the norm, or at least the ones that matter.
This is one of the subtle ways in which institutionalized white advantage works — it normalizes a white perspective for everyone.
Until this nation confronts and understands its history of this white advantage, America will continue upon a path where the individual lives of nonwhite people are not as valued and where their value is seen largely as a source of cheap labor.
Masses of white people will continue to wonder what the problem is. Some in the U.S. are made richer by this arrangement, but all of us are rendered far less than our best.
Jacqueline Battalora is an associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at St. Xavier University in Chicago.