Friday, July 19, 2013

Fifty Shades of Black

I expect not too many Indians found time to follow the recent verdict in the US about the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin by a "neighbourhood watch coordinator", George Zimmerman. The story runs as follows: Trayvon and his father visited his father's fiancee at a gated community in Florida. Trayvon hopped out in the evening to buy a snack. While he was walking home, Zimmerman who was in a car found his movements suspicious, recounting later that Trayvon was peering into windows while he walked. He called the police, who said they would come soon and advised him not to follow the suspect. They came within two minutes! But it was all over and Trayvon was dead. Zimmerman admitted he had followed Trayvon, who - he says - jumped on him and attacked him with his fists. At this point, Zimmerman fired his gun and killed him.

Trayvon was not armed. Whether he was peering into windows and whether he attacked Zimmerman first can never be proved, since there were no effective witnesses.

Zimmerman was recently found not guilty on the grounds that he was defending himself from a physical attack. The case is complicated by the fact that Trayvon was black and Zimmerman white. (Much has been made of the fact that Z was technically Hispanic, but in fact his father was of German origin and his mother Peruvian.) Since there were no witnesses, the story lends itself to interpretation and there have been two popular ones: (i) white man sees black man, wrongly suspects him of being up to no good (out of racism), follows him thereby provoking an altercation and shoots him dead, (ii) black man behaves in a shady manner  a responsible neighbourhood volunteer holding a licensed gun calls police and follows the suspect, who - probably up to no good - turns on him and the volunteer shoots to defend himself. Those who believe interpretation (i) inevitably point out that had the races been reversed (armed black man follows unarmed white man and shoots him dead) the shooter would surely have been condemned. Those who believe interpretation (ii) argue that race had nothing to do with it.

I don't have anything to add to the story but I'm powerfully struck by the extent to which skin colour determines one's opinion. See this very nice page on the Guardian where the "top 10 commentaries" on the case have been posted. The newspaper helpfully provides photos of the commentators, four of whom are black and six are white. Three of the four black commentators clearly support interpretation (i), while the fourth has a more nuanced view. Four of the six white commentators support interpretation (ii), while the other two differ. Thus there's a clear correlation between one's own race and one's view on this legal case. I find this incredibly sad, though it's not news that modern societies are still highly polarised about identities.

The four white people holding the "official white" view work for right-wing media (one of them works for the extreme-right Fox News). I find some of their comments revolting and dishonest. One says we should "not keep this particular wound open any longer". In other words, bad things do happen! Another refers to "more than one reasonable doubt about Zimmerman's guilt". The Fox News Nazi comes up with a brilliant one: "No one should be charged with a crime unless prosecutors themselves really believe that the person committed a crime." and goes on to argue that in this case they did not. In other words, it should be down to the personal opinion of the prosecutors! At least in this case.

But let's highlight the sensible folk. Alex Fraser (black) writes an open letter to Zimmerman on Facebook: "For the rest of your life you are now going to feel what its like to be a black man in America. You will feel people stare at you, judging you for what you think are unfair reasons" It's an oblique message. And Bob Seay (white), on his own Facebook page, gets right to the heart of it. "I am not Trayvon Martin" he says: "You don't have to be black, or young, or a 'troubled student' or a pot smoker to know this was murder." His point is that white people should stop blindly identifying with their own race and show more empathy with minorities, with the "other", because they are unfairly victimised all the time. I think this is an important message for all majorities in all countries.

This story also casts serious doubt on the jury system in the USA. If the correlation between one's own race and one's judgement on the case holds, then an all-white jury would find Zimmerman innocent and an all-black one would find him guilty. What was the actual composition of the jury that found him innocent? Five white and one Hispanic.


vbalki said...

Let me add a little twist to your final remarks (which I concur with). Suppose, for a minute, that the Americans had decided that the case was
racially too explosive to be decided by an American jury, and was best decided by a "neutral" jury that was neither black nor white, but good old brown, as in INDIAN brown. So let's say they "outsourced" jury duty to six of our own, educated, sophisticated, solid middle-class compatriots.
Would the outcome have been any different, and would the bias have been any less? I'm not so sanguine.

NuMu said...

I think the jury trial was fine, considering "Don't imprison 1 innocent person, even if 10 guilty ones go free". There was reasonable doubt.

Whats ridiculous is Florida's stand-your-ground law, and of course gun ownership.

Much harder is race (or caste or religion or ....). I dont know how one would remove this human tendency to classify fellow humans.

Sudhir Raniwala said...

In the case being mentioned, one is unsure because of (lack of) evidence and witnesses. However, examples of the judgement based on race, and the colour of the skin (and other irrelevant attributes) are many. "A time to Kill" was a novel and a film, more than a decade ago, based on related issues. Films reflect society