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James Bell Headshot

Burden of Proof

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It is pretty well known throughout society that our justice system requires some burden of proof be met in order for one adversary to prevail over another. By now, the trial of George Zimmerman and the legal burden of proof, litigation theories and performances by counsel in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin have been commented on from almost every possible angle.

However, there is also a philosophical burden of proof, or onus, wherein one must meet a particular level of logical sufficiency for an argument to prevail. In my opinion, it is this philosophic burden of proof that the Zimmerman shooting trial has failed to meet. Similarly, there are a couple of themes regarding race and community violence put forward by the pundocracy and commentariat that do not meet the burden as well.

Like so many people, when I heard the verdict on that Saturday night, I felt emotions that ranged from fury to dispirit. It is times like these that Black folks instantly become a village no matter how far flung we are. While there are always the designated commentators whose job description is to make the larger society feel comfortable by assuring them it is not about race, the overwhelming majority of Black folks took this very personally. We took it personally because, for us, this was more than the oft stated "unfortunate and tragic incident."

We took it personally because we know the pretzel logic spewing forth denying race as the primary cause of this legally defensible killing continues to be absurd. While a significant number of White folks continue to run away from, ignore and rationalize the impact of race in civil society, Black folks and other ethnicities live it practically every minute of every day. And applying the Justice Potter Stewart standard to racialism as being hard to define but "knowing it when we see it" -- we saw it in this case. But most importantly until the folks holding the levers of power and media hegemony quit denying this clear truth, the philosophic burden of proof will not be met and dialogue is an exercise in futility because we have nothing to talk about.

So many Black folks feel strongly about this because our men and boys have been wedged into a categorical societal norm as impulsive, violent, criminal and scary. Indeed, the thinking is that Black boys and men are more likely than not to have these characteristics. Black males, the narrative goes, might not have done something criminal or scary today, but just wait, eventually they will. So no right-thinking person should be blamed if that is the impression of us. In fact, the logic goes suggests it is probably prudent and in George Zimmerman's case, it excuses a killing.

Today, Black males may be acceptable, but tomorrow we may not -- if we laugh too loud, talk too loud, stare too closely, or, heaven forbid, confront a stranger that is following us for no reason. So of course, Trayvon falls into this omnipresent narrative. As columnist Charles Blow asked, 'at what speed do our men and boys walk to escape this notion of inevitability and innate anti-social behavior?' For other folks to tell Black folks that we are too sensitive and see racialism behind every corner belies our lived experience.

Another theme coming from the "why are Black folks so mad" chorus involves the notion of "Black on Black" crime. Indeed, most crime occurs within each race or ethnicity. There is no doubt that years of disinvestment in communities of concentrated poverty combined with the easy accessibility of handguns and invented indicia of disrespect can be lethal, dangerous and heartbreaking. However, the pundits seem to have taken no notice of advocacy that folks like us who work in communities of color have been working for better schools, housing and jobs as an antidote to violence. Even more insulting is the insinuation that we can't work on those long-term issues and be outraged about Trayvon's fate at the same time.

I believe President Obama had it right when he noted that we don't need another commission. What we need is an adjustment in the philosophic burden of proof. My only hope is that younger people and the changing demographics of this country can deliver a societal verdict of not guilty for Black boys and men.