The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
The End of the Zimmerman Trial

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.

Published on July 14, 2013 12:08 am
  • Corlyss

    “Nobody really knows or can know if the verdict in the trial is justice for either Trayvon Martin or George Zimmerman.”

    This is not the end of the story. Vultures from the DoJ Civil Rights division will appear next week to charge Zimmerman with violating Martin’s civil rights. As far as DoJ is concerned, it is still 1960, Martin was Emmitt Till, and, with all that talk of “profiling” which doesn’t apply to private citizens, Zimmerman is Bull Connor. If there’s any justice in the afterlife, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson will be held to account for their role in this spectacle of a man hounded relentlessly for defending himself. With each year that passes we’re becoming more and more like Europe.

  • Atanu Maulik

    When will the American blacks stop bitching and whining and stop playing the race card ? I thought it will end when they got their guy in the White House ?

    • rheddles

      “When will the American blacks stop bitching and whining and stop playing the race card ?”

      When people get bored by being called racist and stop paying attention. The current elite is sufficiently masochistic that this will not happen for another 20 years. But it is starting. Even the rioting isn’t very enthusiastic.

  • charlesrwilliams

    All very even handed and wise. But really, the emperor has no clothes. George Zimmerman was the victim of a politically driven prosecution. This is a fact. Now we will see if the legal system can deliver justice to a man who has lost a year of his life to a racist mob and the politicians who pandered to that mob. No objective observer could watch the trial and conclude that there was ever a case against Zimmerman.

    The Simpson trial was different. There was a legitmate case against Simpson and apparently it was not strong enough to convict.

    This is a big deal. The president and the attorney general and the governor of FL effectively joined a mob trying to lynch an innocent man. This is unprecedented. It is a serious matter.

    • jeburke

      I agree. Mead is smothering the significance of the case in blather. First, it’s absurd to declare it “not news.” In this case, it was big news precisely because everyone from the President down to the demonstrators with Sharpton in the Sanford streets cast it as a racial morality tale, a quest for “justice for Trayvon,” as if central Florida in 2012 were Mississippi in 1960, as if the country had not changed a whit, as if the police and prosecutors of Seminole County who determined that no charges against Zimmerman were warranted are a bunch of yahoo racists.

      Second, Mead goes on at length about the differing conclusions different people will take away from the verdict, as if every conclusion were equally justified, as if none were right or wrong.

      Third, it seems clear to me that Mead is missing (or chooses to miss) the overarching fact about the case: the prosecution was driven not by evidence of the crime charged, if which there was practically none,

      • Pete

        You are correct, JeBurke, about Mr. Mead turning a blind eye to the racist witch hunt that the Zimmerman trial was.

        That is probably because Prof. Mead has assumed a guilt complex when it comes to blacks due to his Southern upbringing back in the 50′s and 60′s.

        But it is encouraging that Prof. Mead’s affliction has not affected most of the posters here who have an unencumbered view of reality.

      • lukelea

        Man, that was well said.

  • ljgude

    This post is the best I’ve read. Any if the DOJ goes after Zimmerman they will show that they don’t get it that this sad incident is just not a strong example of racism. It is very clearly tragic, and very unclearly racist.

  • bigfire

    As many as point out, we should really rewrite the headline to read: “Black man acquitted of murder despite the urging of a White President”.
    The ‘White Hispanic’ is a quarter Black. Our president is half White.

  • stan

    This case was instructive because of the dishonesty and ethical corruption it exposed. The prosecution was so ethically corrupt that it could supply enough to teach a semsester of ethics in law school. Even worse was the news media. The dishonest portrayals, pictures and descriptions showed just how corrupt journalism has become.

    • bpuharic

      My wife, a criminal defense attorney, was amazed someone could get acquitted after chasing down and executing someone. American exceptionalism indeed.

      • Doug

        Why does your wife thinks that is what happened in this case? Did she watch any of the trial? Or is she relying on your reports?

        • bpuharic

          I didn’t watch any of it. She did.And yes, that’s what she thinks happened.

      • rheddles

        A lid for every pot.

      • saailer

        #1) Offer, from trial, evidence that supports Martin was “chased down”…#2) “To execute” is to kill somebody as part of a legal or extralegal process. The usage of this verb is incorrect. It was used to amplify and distort what really happened. If someone chases down and executes (your wife’s terminology) that is cold blooded murder. It is intended as a subtle alteration; many of your comments drip with this method of propaganda. Rather typical of liberals when truth goes against their argument. Whether I’m left or right, I know deceptive information when I read it…

      • stan

        And then he bashed his own head on the concrete and broke his nose? Execution style, of course.

  • jeburke

    Perhaps the most bizarre — but telling — aspect of the case is the racial categorization of Zimmerman. Iniitially, in police reports and local news coverage he was described as white, and when it was discovered that he was half Hispanic, the race narrative had already taken hold and most of the media simply ignored or side-stepped the issue (the New York Times, of course, in its relentless emphasis on accuracy, absurdly labelled him a “white Hispanic” until it discovered that his mother was part Black).

    I have long believed that if Zimmerman’s dad been Latino and his mom anglo-white, and had his name been Jorge Mesa, this whole sorry spectacle would never have happened. Al Sharpton and the rest of the travelling race baiters would never have staged demonstrations in Florida, the media would not have noticed, Obama and various members of Congress would never have put in their two cents for fear of alienating Latinos, and “Jorge Mesa” would not have been in the dock for this political show trial.

    • Jim__L

      When I first heard the name, I wondered if Mr. Zimmerman were Jewish. What would have happened in the case of another Goetz trial?

      Speaking of other trials, one thing that blew me away at the Scott Peterson trial was how many commenters wailed about the supposed “racial dimension”, how only a white woman would get this much attention.

      Apparently the media neglected to mention Laci Rocha (a schoolmate of mine) was Hispanic.

      The MSM in this country has difficulty getting its facts straight, and the fact that so many of them are card-carrying members of the Racial Grievance Industry makes it nearly impossible for most of this country to get the plain facts about a case like this.

  • Cimon Alexander

    As America becomes more diverse, racial pandering and showboating will only pay larger political dividends. I wouldn’t count on any significant “racial healing and reconciliation”.

    For a model of a racially diverse Democracy, I recommend Yugoslavia. You’ll notice it no longer exists.

    • rheddles

      As America intermarries, racial definitions will become more and more blurred and meaningless. Over the long run, racial pandering will pay dividends only if there are lots of losers looking for an excuse.

  • John Stephens

    As a matter of fact there were great political principles at stake here: the the rights of self defense and to keep and bear arms. Both were decisively upheld.

    • bpuharic

      No one knows what the ‘right to keep and bear arms’ means in modern America. The right has constructed a myth about the NRA defending American’s shores, or somesuch nonsense, but unless you’re already committed to the narrative, it makes no sense.

      • John Stephens

        I know what I mean by it, and that’s good enough for me.

  • bpuharic

    While WRM notes that Obama has ‘lost control of the race narrative’ (as if it ever was his to control), he fails to note that the GOP has nothing to offer middle class Americans in general, and minorities in particular. 90% of GOP voters are white and as Andrew Sullivan showed on his blog yesterday, GOP congressional districts are 70% white, where Democratic districts are 51% white.

    Conservatives are determined to drive the narrative underground, with Voter ID fraud and other myths taking the place of real dialog about a number of issues.

    • Adam

      I don’t think this is the kind of blog you’re looking for. WRM tries to avoid noisy rhetoric and stick to the hard facts and reasoned arguments. Try HLN or something.

      • bpuharic

        Wouldn’t know it by you, would we?

  • lukelea

    To me this was a story about the media and its inability to deal dispassionately — without fear or favor — in black/white controversies. Whether they do it out of anti-white prejudice, if there is such a thing, or to drive the ratings I do not know.

  • lukelea

    I believe in the common decency of the American people but I’m not sure I feel that way about the press corps.

  • circleglider

    The Zimmerman case was never about black-white relations — both Trayvon Martin and Zimmerman (who’s blacker than Homer Plessy) would be counted as African-American by any college “diversity” office in America, and Zimmerman was hispanic, too, but from the press coverage you’d think he was Bull Connor. The only thing that Zimmerman has in common with Bull Connor is that Bull Connor was a Democrat, too.

    • bpuharic

      It’s fun to watch right wing heads explode when they try to wrap their heads around the fact southern right wingers used to be

      Democrats

  • lukelea

    I think WRM was wise not to write about the Zimmerman trial. For a mainstream journalist to have exercised his independent judgment would have been toxic. Even the facts were off limits. It was an Orwellian moment.

    Maybe some other time in some other context — global warming hysteria for instance — he can delve into the more general problem of . . of . . I don’t even know what to call it. Enforced conformity of opinion? Totalitarianism lite?

    Whatever it is what are its sources and what does it mean? Have there been other periods in American history like this? Is it dangerous or just odd?