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Finding Justice for the Trayvons of the World

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The gravely disheartening yet unsurprising result in the Trayvon Martin case has been the subject of incessant conversations with both French and American friends in France, where I am working presently. What has struck me in these discussions is how universal a tragedy the Trayvon Martin story is. Even among folks who might cross the street as a black hooded youth approaches in Brooklyn, deftly avoid the banlieues of France, or tread cautiously into Brazil's increasingly trendy but still racially defined favelas, the line between the racism of avoidance and the racism of lethal confrontation seems equally bright on both sides of the Atlantic and the equator. Except, apparently, in Florida where a six-person jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of the murder and manslaughter of world's most famous deceased black youth du jour.

Putting the frailty of the prosecution's case to one side, the injustice of the George Zimmerman verdict stems from a universal and historic implicit bias against black youth. Implicit bias is the subconscious racism that informs our actions based on negative stereotypes. In the case of Trayvon Martin, the underlying assumption of his assailant was that a young black man in a hooded sweatshirt walking through a residential area at night could only have been up to no good. More disturbing is the jury's suggestion through its verdict that this unarmed, candy-carrying black youth, who was chatting on a phone with a friend, would with no justification initiate deadly force against Zimmerman, his pursuer, such that Zimmerman would in turn be justified in killing him. For all six jurors to accept this narrative, they had to accept that Zimmerman acted in self-defense and was not guilty of even the lesser charge of manslaughter. Plausible, yes, but the facts suggest otherwise.

However, in addition to laboring under a botched police investigation and questionable case prep, the prosecution bore both the burden to prove Zimmerman's intent and to disabuse deeply ingrained historical notions of the violent black male. Indeed, the implicit bias that creates a presumption of violence by black male youth is the unspoken undercurrent of the Trayvon Martin case. Coupled with retrograde Stand Your Ground laws like those in Florida, implicit racial bias has created a culture of impunity in which a 17-year-old youth, lawfully traversing his father's housing complex is pursued, confronted, and, fatally shot when he reacts to being hunted in this manner. Importantly, Zimmerman ultimately did not rely on the infamous Stand Your Ground defense. However, if Zimmerman's self-defense claim was sufficient to prevent the prosecution from obtaining a manslaughter verdict in this case, it's hard to imagine that the quick draw violence that Stand Your Ground laws reward and the innate presumptions about black youth violence did not affect the outcome.

So, what does this case say about the intersection of judicial process, race, and the American political system? When we look at the increasing weakness of African-American political power in the American South in contrast to its growing population, concerted efforts during the previous three election cycles to systematically disenfranchise non-white voters through voter ID laws and deliberate voter-roll purges, political intransigence on progressive immigration policy reform, and doubling down on ahistoric interpretations of the Second Amendment, Trayvon's murder is emblematic of the tide against which young black political power must struggle. What is equally unsettling is the extent to which these issues are replicated not only in North America but the northern hemisphere. Xenophobia and racism pervade Europe and other parts of the world leading to a disproportionate number of hate crimes against black persons. A 2008 Human Rights First report noted that:

"[w]hether citizens or noncitizens, people of African origin stand out as among the principal subjects of racism and xenophobia in many parts of Europe and North America. In the United States, African American citizens continued to represent the largest group of victims of hate crime violence--a legacy of systemic state sanctioned discrimination that began to be remedied only in the 1960's."

Fifty years later, the Trayvon Martin verdict reminds us of the work yet to be done. While the numerous protests and other statements of outrage, empathy, and allegiance are impactful and have received international news coverage, including here in France, sustained attention to implicit bias and current rollbacks on civil rights will provide a more lasting justice to Trayvon's memory. Important legislation like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and legal concepts like affirmative action that have forcibly integrated the halls of power and learning in the United States and set a standard for the rest of the world to follow (and, in some cases, improve) are either on the chopping block or already have been severely narrowed. Let Trayvon's tragic death continue to fuel national and international dialogue about implicit and systemic biases in employment, education, housing, voting, criminal justice, life, love, and the pursuit of happiness when carried to their illogical conclusions. Indeed, the Trayvons of the world remind us of how painfully far we remain from the ideal of equality for all, but also of the universal, human interest to continue its pursuit.