Reaction was swift and polarized the moment the verdict was announced in the George Zimmerman trial. My Facebook wall and Twitter feed were inundated with prayers and support for the Martin family, damnations for George Zimmerman, and cries of racial injustice. "A white man can profile and kill a black kid in this country and not be sent to jail," one of my friends screamed from their digital rooftop. Others argued the outcome of this trial had nothing to do with race at all.
The perception of truth is what matters here. This trial was interpreted with racial overtones by the media, and these issues are never far from our collective consciousness. Never mind that most of us did not watch the trial and are not aware enough of the arguments and evidence presented on both sides to make a sound judgment call on whether the burden of proof was met for Zimmerman's conviction, our emotional floodgates are now open. For example:
"A white guy killed a black kid, and got off. Only in America."
"It seems to me a kid was walking home from 7/11 with a pack of Skittles and an overly aggressive, armed man (disregarding numerous pleas from law enforcement/dispatch not to) sought him out for confrontation -- so who is responsible for the tragedy that followed is pretty go**amn clear."
"Dear Mr. Martin & Mrs. Fulton, your family and your son matter. A whole lot of us are horrified that what you've been through could happen in America. We are just so damn sorry."
"Martin Luther King was murdered again in essence!"
"Really????? Really?!!! Zimmerman goes free and now this? Wow."
That last quote was accompanied by a link to a May 12, 2012, CBS News article detailing another Florida court case in which a wife and mother, a black woman, was convicted and sentenced to twenty years in prison for firing warning shots at her advancing, abusive husband. Marissa Alexander has now been in prison for almost as long as Trayvon Martin has been buried. Most of the nation did not know who Marissa Alexander is, or care about her conviction until yesterday, when the immediate fate of one tragic national figure and the memory of another were decided in tandem with the utterance of two words, "Not guilty." And our nation is disgusted.
The George Zimmerman verdict highlights racial injustice in America because these injustices exist. Black men are almost six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males. This is not because blacks have a greater proclivity to commit crime than whites. Research shows that minority children face higher levels of out-of-school disciplinary actions (i.e. suspension and expulsion), which correlate to a greater number of referrals to the juvenile court system; there is more policing per capita in the impoverished, minority-concentrated inner-city and urban communities, which leads to substantially higher arrest rates among minorities; and, as part of America's "War On Drugs," inner-city minorities are far more likely to be imprisoned than sentenced to drug rehabilitation for drug offenses based on minimum sentencing guidelines and an overloaded inner-city court system. These and other myriad factors do not appear to be exclusively and conscientiously instituted by any singular entity. Rather, they circumstantially combine, intertwine, and interact to form a complete, observable, and oppressive economic. One that goes ignored 99 percent of the time because, when unanalyzed, the results play into negative minority stereotypes, which are sometimes propagated, and often widely accepted, even in the minority community.
These stereotypes help form superficially convenient truths for an increasingly privatized American prison system that requires a steady influx of inmates to protect its investor profits, and for an American society detrimentally lacking in critical self-assessment. The fact is this: America's minorities are disenfranchised at their roots by a system that fundamentally propels them towards incarceration and recidivism, a system that takes advantage of the psychological stereotype of the minority criminal, and that preys on the underprivileged for its chowder. We who are expressing outrage, most of us are complicit, as we suffice to engage in armchair activism while not lifting a finger to get involved, to actually effect change.
If we are so upset about the decision in the Zimmerman trial, how about instead of uselessly changing our profile photos to that black square or typing that emotional new status update, we put that energy and then some to good use by actually doing something. Yes, it is an unfair system and minorities, those who have darker skin in particular, are treated inequitably by it. The injustices stretch far beyond the American courtroom, beyond a single verdict or a handful of verdicts. So, what are we going to do about it? How can we demand it be changed? How can we revise the system? If we lift up those who are underprivileged, if we change the way of things and give opportunity where it is now lacking, everybody wins.
Let's do it.