Thoughts on the George Zimmerman Verdict and Subsequent Controversy

Whether the Verdict was Wrong

The Wire creator David Simon said the following about the Zimmerman verdict: “You can stand your ground if you’re white, and you can use a gun to do it.  But if you stand your ground with your fists and you’re black, you’re dead.  In the state of Florida, the season on African-Americans now runs year round.”  Simon gets at why the verdict feels unsatisfying, but his thinking is mistaken.  The jury/legal system didn’t say that if you stand your ground with your fists and you’re black, you’re dead.  George Zimmerman made that decision, not the legal system. 

The jury’s decision does not imply any claim that Martin was at fault, deserved to die, or anything like that.  If a white guy chased a black kid down a sidewalk, and the black kid beat the guy up, and a jury convicted the black guy and somehow sentenced him to death, that would be the legal system saying “if you stand your ground with your fists and you’re black, you’re dead.”  Another thing the jury did not make a claim about was whether, in a broader moral sense, Zimmerman is responsible for Martin’s death.  Nor, finally, did it claim Zimmerman was innocent; it only failed to find him guilty.

Because Zimmerman is the one on trial, the jury has to focus on his point of view, and give him the benefit of the doubt, which largely excludes Trayvon Martin’s point of view from consideration.  Given the question the jury faced, it is certainly relevant that Martin probably threw the first punch.  Again, if Martin were on trial, you’d probably say he’s justified in doing what he did- or at least, the state couldn’t have proven otherwise.  But it’s Zimmerman who’s on trial, and he’s claiming self-defense, and obviously he has a more reasonable claim if the other guy started hitting him first, regardless of the reason.  And the question of whether Zimmerman had reasonable fear of death, or whether the state had proven he did not have reasonable fear, forces the jury to look at things from his perspective alone, only asking whether his claimed perspective was reasonable and not, broadly speaking, whether he was “the good guy” in the fight.

Standing One’s Ground

But what about the law the jury was asked to apply?  Was it just? 

Reason Magazine’s Jacob Sullum has argued that Florida’s “stand your ground” law had no bearing on the verdict, because Zimmerman’s lawyers did not raise a “stand your ground” defense.  The same burden-of-proof argument that cuts against David Simon cuts against Sullum here, however: the defense didn’t need to raise “stand your ground” argument because, strictly speaking, the defense doesn’t need to raise any arguments.  The instructions to the jury included the following: “If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

The defense’s story was that Martin pinned Zimmerman to the ground and slammed his head repeatedly, so he couldn’t get away.  But the defense doesn’t have to prove its story. Even if the jury didn’t buy the defense’s story, it could still vote “not guilty” on “stand your ground” grounds. 

It might be a moot point, because there may have been no way to disprove Zimmerman’s story in which he had no chance to run away, since he’s the only living witness.  But the law was that Zimmerman had a right to shoot even if he could have fled the fight, and as applied to a situation where he was chasing down an innocent person, that’s pretty obviously unjust.  Stand your ground becomes a license to both start and finish a street fight, as long as you can get the other guy to throw the first punch. 

Obviously, if anyone had a moral right to stand his ground, it was Trayvon Martin, yet he tried running away.  Zimmerman ran into trouble, and yet legally had a right to “stand his ground” and no obligation to retreat once the situation threatened to become deadly.  But it’s worse than that: he ran after Martin while carrying a gun, which means any confrontation is likely to become deadly.  You have to shoot, or else the other guy will get your gun; the other guy has to get your gun, or else you will shoot.  So by the very act of instigating the confrontation, Zimmerman was creating a deadly situation.

Whether to Have a National Conversation About Race

People on the left tend to advocate a national conversation about race, but actually favor strict limits to discourse about race.  Contrary to the left’s position, these limits are the main reason people avoid the subject.  People fear saying the wrong thing; they do not fear hearing something that makes them “uncomfortable.”

Conversations about race tend to produce low-quality and imprecise thinking.  It is never clear what exactly we are supposed to be talking about, what claim we are supposed to be debating or discussing.  For instance, Richard Cohen wrote in a Washington Post column that there is a widespread fear of crime committed by young black males, and that this is because black males commit a relatively large number of crimes.  Matt Yglesias responded with his usual subtle analysis: Cohen, he wrote, thinks we should assume “young black men are all criminals.”  There was no textual basis for this claim, but in the mind of someone like Yglesias, to even mention black crime rates can only lead to one conclusion.

While Yglesias was wrong to jump to conclusions, though, it is unclear what claim Cohen was trying to advance.  That the black crime rate is x is just a fact.  What is the significance of it?  That people are reasonable to fear crime by black people more than white.  Okay, but what should they do in response to this fear?  Avoid certain neighborhoods?  Call the police when a black person enters their neighborhood? 

If your fear motivates you to move to the suburbs, that’s one thing.  If your fear motivates you to chase after someone on the streets, that’s something else entirely.  But somehow both these actions are part of one “conversation about race,” because they’re both based on the same feeling and sociological fact.  It’s true that the Left starts this nonsense, but Cohen chooses to participate in it.  If you want to defend the reasonable actions of people, such as moving to suburbs and not walking through certain neighborhoods, maybe even avoiding confrontation with a black stranger (which might be unpleasant for said stranger, but probably not terribly significant to him), then shouldn’t the goal be to distinguish such people from George Zimmerman rather than lump them all together to defend them?

The fears people have of crime in general, or of crime by black people in particular, are their own business; they are just feelings, and don’t harm anyone, and they are not necessarily feelings of hatred.  As for their actions in response to these fears, moving to low-crime areas with safe schools strikes me as entirely reasonable.  There is no need for a national conversation to shame people into not doing these things.  Since they are doing these things on their own, there is also no need for a national conversation about “black criminality” to get them to do them.  I therefore see no purpose in a national conversation about race.

One Jason Riley wrote on the Wall Street Journal editorial page to the effect that a conversation about race must begin with the fact of black criminality.*  But that arbitrarily takes the viewpoint of the profiler, rather than the profilee.  Why is that the most significant fact about race?  To whom is it the most significant?  Cohen wrote: “Did the perception of black criminality play a role in Martin’s death? We may never know for certain, but we do know that those negative perceptions of young black men are rooted in hard data on who commits crimes. We also know that young black men will not change how they are perceived until they change how they behave….Civil-rights leaders today choose to keep the focus on white racism instead of personal responsibility.”  Yet Riley completely embraces collective responsibility, with references to “black criminality” and the need for blacks to change “how they behave.” 

Basically, some people want to defend George Zimmerman’s mindset without defending his actions.  But there was more to his mindset than recognition of high black crime rates.  I see a black kid on the street, I know that he’s statistically x times as likely to commit a crime as a white kid.  Now what?  To get to the point of calling police and chasing him around, I need to also think: “this is my street, my gated community, and it is not his, because he is black, and this isn’t a black neighborhood.”  That mindset, not just “fear of black crime,” was at work if race was behind Zimmerman’s actions.**  It is a mistake to treat black crime rates as somehow decisive in the entire racial discussion.  That discussion is too vast in scope for any piece of data to be decisive.  People should instead advance clear, defined, limited and debatable claims.

***

Yglesias elaborated on his Twitter criticism of Cohen.  “I think what Cohen really means to be arguing isn’t so much that neither he nor George Zimmerman are racists, but that racism is the correct social and political posture.  That white people have good reason to fear black men, and that therefore all black men should be put in a subordinate position.”  Behind Yglesias’s terrible logic here is the same mistake I’ve been criticizing: creating a broad “conversation about race,” and failing to distinguish between different claims about race.  That people (all people- why would it just be white?) have reason to fear black men, and that black men should be put in a subordinate position, are two different claims.  Yglesias treats them as indistinguishable.  Thus the moral claim (white supremacy is bad) becomes dependent on contingent sociological facts.  He and other progressives for this reason believe that to oppose white supremacy, they have to delegitimize fear of black crime.

Yglesias goes to great trouble to show that most young black men are not violent criminals.  But how much risk should a person be willing to take?  He notes that he has only been beaten up by black people once since moving to D.C.  But he’s a young single guy, for whom being beaten up is unpleasant but no big deal.  Perhaps if he were responsible for a family, he would consider his lifestyle too risky, and change his location and/or walking habits.  The violent crime rate doesn’t have to be over 50% among a group, in a region, or in the overall population for people to change their behavior in response.

How much danger justifies fear is a subjective response that depends on the situation, and crime rates for different groups is a sociological fact subject to change.  The wrongness of white supremacy should not depend on such things.  Yglesias’s reasoning is really along the lines of “white supremacy is bad; legitimate fear of black crime would justify white supremacy; therefore, fear of black crime MUST NOT be legitimate.”

* I don’t recall exactly what he wrote, and I can’t get to the article now.  I did record the bits I put in quotation marks, though.

** Which it may not be, but both sides of the National Conversation are assuming it is, so they can have their Conversation.