To ask "Who is George Zimmerman?" -- as many are now asking -- is perhaps the wrong question. Undoubtedly, Zimmerman needs to be brought to justice in the tragic and unjust killing of Trayvon Martin.
The killing of Trayvon Martin demonstrates how insidiously pervasive racism remains in this country and reminds us how truly far we are from achieving racial justice.
A bigger question that must also be asked is "Who is Florida?" We could ask a question about the direction America is headed on race and violence but let's stick to Florida for a moment. While race is a fundamental factor in this case, and rightly stirring a national furor, I want to draw attention to levels of violence in Florida.
Florida is the fourth most violent state in the U.S. It is in America's Top 10 for most violent crimes per 100,000 people. It is also in the Top 10 for incarceration rates and police employees per 100,000 and near the top 10 for homicides per capita. In our U.S. Peace Index, it ranked near the bottom at 47th. Only Nevada, Tennessee and Louisiana are more violent. In short, there is a culture of violence in Florida that must be addressed when looking at George Zimmerman. He is not alone.
Florida does not understand how to keep the peace, despite its high numbers of police per capita. What we know from our index's strongest correlations, is that a state's ability to provide for its population in the following areas dramatically increases its capacity to lower its levels of violence: Graduate your students, insure your residents, provide access to basic services, lower poverty and inequality rates, and increase labor participation rates, and the less prevalent and pervasive violent crime, homicide, incarceration, policing and small arms trafficking will be.
Florida, then, must rethink its latest budget cuts, which have eaten away at education, health care, basic services and economic opportunity. If it wants to save money, there is another way -- by reducing violence. For example, if Florida reduced its violence by a mere 25 percent, savings would surpass $9.3 billion. Those are monies that state budget desperately needs. The equation is simple: Reduce violence, save money. But for some reason, Florida's state legislature remains undeterred in its efforts to cut policies that will ultimately prevent violence.
This tragedy must not only refocus America's attention on its pervasive racism but also refocus Florida's attention on preventing violence.
Michael Shank is the US Vice President at the Institute for Economics and Peace. Michael is an Associate at the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict, serves on the board of the National Peace Academy, and is in the PhD Program at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.
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