George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin, and Legal Bias
Both sides in the Trayvon Martin debate agree that America’s courts are biased, says Peter Beinart.
In April of last year, Gallup asked Americans their views on the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case. Unlike blacks, whites hadn’t been paying close attention: 40 percent said they had been following the affair either “not too closely” or “not at all.” But when Gallup asked whites if “racial bias” had influenced Zimmerman’s behavior, more than half of those who had admitted to knowing little or nothing about the incident summoned the confidence to venture an opinion. A majority said race was either a “minor factor” or “not a factor.”
The Gallup poll confirms what many of us intuitively know: that most Americans make up their minds about cases like Trayvon Martin’s not because they have a strong opinion about how to interpret Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, but because they have a strong opinion about race in America. And not surprisingly, those views diverge dramatically across racial lines. In a 2009 Pew poll, whites were by 31 points more likely than blacks to say the police usually treat whites and blacks equally. A 2010 Pew poll found that while 58 percent of blacks said news coverage of blacks was too negative, 57 percent of whites said it was either fair or too positive. The divide isn’t only racial; it’s partisan too. An analysis of the 2008 American National Election Study by John Sides at the Monkey Cage blog found that white Democrats were by 18 points more likely than white Republicans to consider blacks “intelligent” and by a whopping 29 points more likely to consider them “hardworking.” It’s no surprise, therefore, that while more than half of Republicans told Pew last year that the media had devoted too much attention to the Martin case, only one third of white Democrats agreed. Among Democrats overall, the figure dropped to one quarter.
This is what the debate over Saturday’s verdict is really about. It’s another skirmish between those black and white Democrats who believe racism remains a grave problem and those white Republicans who think political correctness is a bigger one. It’s not just that most Republicans don’t worry much about discrimination against blacks. They’re increasingly worried about discrimination against whites. According to a 2011 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, almost two thirds of Tea Party supporters consider discrimination against whites as big a problem as discrimination against blacks. People who consider Fox News their most trusted news source are almost twice as likely to consider “reverse discrimination” a “critical” issue as they are to feel that way about the old-fashioned, white-on-black kind.
All of which explains why neither side in the Martin/Zimmerman saga is defending the basic fairness of our judicial system. Both agree that America’s courts are biased. They just disagree about whom they’re biased against. “We live in a world where there isn’t equal justice. This case never, never would have been brought if the races were reversed,” said one TV pundit the day after the verdict. Al Sharpton? No, Ann Coulter, arguing that America’s judicial system is massively skewed against whites. “If Floridians are of a mind to let off a little steam, they might usefully burn down the Sanford courthouse and salt the earth. The justice system revealed by this squalid trial is worth rioting over,” added a well-known columnist. Cornel West? No, National Review’s Mark Steyn, arguing that the trial was absurdly slanted against Zimmerman.
But in a way, this white victimology is a sign of racial progress. Fox News and the Tea Party’s anxiety about the oppression of white people is intimately related to the election of a black president. And we have a black president because Barack Obama assembled the kind of multiracial, anti-racist coalition that liberals only dreamed about decades ago. In the 1980s, when Al Sharpton was making his name denouncing white-on-black violence in Howard Beach and Bensonhurst (along with other, less edifying, crusades), he enjoyed little support outside African-American circles. Today, he denounces the Zimmerman verdict from his perch at MSNBC, where blacks and whites come together around a shared liberal agenda.
That doesn’t mean the judicial system has stopped treating black life as cheap. But it does mean that when it does, there is more outrage, from a broader swath of the populace, than twenty or even ten years ago. The arc of the moral universe seemed unbearably long last Saturday. And yet, slowly, it bends.