Via Meadia hasn’t said much about the Zimmerman trial; that was by design. There’s nothing morally wrong with following every twist and turn of a court case, but in our book that is entertainment and drama rather than news. When some event captures the attention of the country and even the world like the Simpson trial or this one, the drama around the courtroom and the national chit chat about the trial can be revealing, but it’s almost always a mistake to think that the chatter means anything or will change anything.
In this case that certainly seems to be true. Whether skimming the torrents of op-eds on this case or coping with the flood in our Twitter feed, we see that a great many conventional sentiments of different types have been expressed by a great many people, but the country doesn’t seem appreciably wiser about race or the legal system now than when the whole sad story began.
People will take whatever meaning they want from this case. Some will find their belief that the criminal justice system fails African American young men is confirmed. Others, despite the acquittal, will continue to feel that Zimmerman should never have gone to trial at all. Some will celebrate what they view as the courageous moral witness of lefty journalists at a critical moment in the nation’s life; others will deplore what they see as attempts to politicize a simple criminal case. Everyone will now wait to see whether the verdict leads to violence anywhere, and if it does, everyone will restate their longstanding convictions on the subject.
Those of us who remember the old days must be pardoned if we think of this latest installment in America’s race saga as small beer. Many who remember the Freedom Rides, Selma, the assassinations of Dr. King and Malcolm X, and the summers when America’s inner cities burned to the ground one after the other saw the trial in less than historic terms.
For a lot of emerging political analysts and elections, the trial was a much bigger thing. Particularly for young people raised as I was in the liberal tradition and taught as I was (and as I continue to believe) that the racial fault line has immense importance for the meaning of the American political experience, it’s exciting and even transfixing to watch the country go through a major racial controversy in real time. This may not be John Brown’s treason trial in Virginia, but it’s an opportunity to see and feel the swirl of attitudes and impressions that cluster around race in America today. Kids have read about America’s racial problems in books; it’s hardly surprising that many intelligent and politically aware people too young, say, to remember the Simpson trial, were riveted by the drama in Florida.
Even so, as racial drama, the Zimmerman trial was at best second-rate. Atticus Finch wasn’t in the courtroom and no great principles were at stake in the sense that they were in Plessy vs. Ferguson or Brown vs. Board of Education. It was a haunting criminal case about the tragic and needless death of a teen aged boy, but it turned on ‘he-said’ ‘she-said’ and probable cause. America’s racial status quo wouldn’t have been affected if Mr. Zimmerman had been convicted; it won’t be changed by his acquittal.
Most of what the trial ‘taught’ us is what we already know. Many blacks and whites see the criminal justice system and much else in quite different terms. The presence of large numbers of immigrants from parts of the hemisphere where traditional American racial categories don’t apply very well is slowly blurring racial lines here. The relationship between African-Americans and ‘Hispanics’ is getting more complex and in some ways more tense. President Obama has lost control of the country’s race narrative. African American leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton aren’t what they used to be. Class lines in America threaten to become more important, and as that happens, African Americans who are both black and poor find themselves increasingly alienated from whites in general and upper middle class and elite blacks. Florida is a mess.
All this was evident before the trial; nothing that happened at the trial changed any of it.
Nobody really knows or can know if the verdict in the trial is justice for either Trayvon Martin or George Zimmerman. Procedurally the trial seemed fair, and enough unbiased observers predicted this outcome that it is hard to call it a surprise. Law and justice don’t always point in the same direction; the state had to meet a tough standard and in the view of the jury, it failed.
The race story in America remains a major one; this trial was a poor vehicle through which to try to tell it. Serious people of all races understand, I think, that the racial ground under America’s feet is shifting, and that a significant percentage of African Americans have lost ground in recent years. Many people understand that the conventional civil rights leadership is married to the slogans and programs of an earlier time and that their prescriptions offer little hope for the problems we face today. Let’s hope that next time a racial trial seizes the country’s imagination and dominates the airwaves, America has moved significantly closer to the racial healing and reconciliation we so badly want and need.