THE BLOG
07/17/2013 12:44 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2013

The Media Does Us No Good By Focusing on Zimmerman

Each year, the media picks up on a murder trial that we are expected to follow with passion. All of these trials strike on some deeper rift in American culture. O.J. had race, sex, and sports. Jackson had race, sex, and celebrity. Casey Anthony represented lazy millennials and fueled the right wing narrative about single motherhood. I could go on, but you get the point, these are all stories in a larger and entirely fabricated narrative.

The Zimmerman trial is perfect then! We get race, guns, immigration, Florida's crazy legal system, and even obesity (kinda). The only way the trial would be more perfect is if Zimmerman was gay. But what about our god-awful judicial system? What about class? Are we not allowed to talk about class anymore? By focusing attention on Zimmerman, American elites have successfully diverted scrutiny from a real discussion of race and class in America.

Let's start with the facts. Not the fact about the Zimmerman case, the real facts about race in the U.S. judicial system. Facts like:

  • A study commissioned by the governor of Maryland found, "Defendants who killed white victims were more likely to advance to a penalty trial and are more likely to be sentenced to death than those who killed a black."
  • Of those on death row, 42% are black, but blacks make up less than 15% of the population. The GAO analyzed 28 studies on capital punishment and found: "In 82% of the studies, race of victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e., those who murdered whites were found to be more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks. This finding was remarkably consistent across data sets, states, data collection methods, and analytic techniques."
  • Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.
  • More than 80% of federal prisoners serving crack cocaine sentences are black.
  • Homicides in which a black victim is killed represent 3.1% of all homicides but 15.6% of all justifiable homicides.
  • Brian Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, argues that if the victim is white, the defendant is 11 times more likely to receive the death penalty than if the victim is black. If the victim is white and the defendant is black, than the likelihood of death penalty sentence is 22 times higher. Further, all-white juries are more likely to hand down a death sentence then a jury with African Americans.
  • Or what about the stop and frisk policy? Blacks and Hispanics comprise 55% and 32% of those stopped by the police in 2012, respectively. How does our punditocracy talk about that? Witness SE Cupp's argument [00:45] that a gun registry, wait periods before purchasing guns and background checks are all the legal and moral equivalent of such stop and frisk policies. Aside from showing us that Cupp is a grade A hack, we see that she doesn't understand the purpose of "stop and frisk." We should make prospective gun owners submit to background checks, not because of who they are, but because of what they are purchasing, a weapon.

Black kids on the street haven't done anything to increase government scrutiny other than the very fact that they are black. And stop and frisk has implications -- the reason more black kids get put in prison is because more black kids are frisked. If the police decided to stop and frisk bankers on the way to parties, my guess is that the prisons would be teeming with wealthy millionaires, but that won't happen. The ultimate purpose of police scrutiny and the war on drugs is to control blacks, to make them feel unsafe and unwelcome. The law presumes guilt until proven innocent, and even then suspicion remains.

But that's the second important thing about the Zimmerman trial -- the amount of racial animosity between poor whites and poor blacks. Here's a correlation that might interest you. Look at this map of racism on Twitter. Compare it to this map of poverty. And this map of who voted for Obama. Weird. Because, poor whites should be voting for Obama in droves. Republicans voted against the stimulus, against employment benefits, against the auto-bailouts, for big tax cuts, etc. The only thing Republicans can truly offer is God, guns, and racial animosity, and boy oh boy have they delivered! While they block grant Medicaid, they'll bemoan "illegal immigrants" and "lazy" people on welfare (blacks). They'll cut taxes on the rich, but they'll also fight tooth and nail against gay marriage.

All the while though, inequality further impoverishes poor Americans, black and white. Student debt keeps working class kids out of college. Minimum wage laws fail to keep up with inflation. Labor unions sink into obscurity. And rich Wall Streeters laugh their way to the ole' bank, on their way, they'll launder some blood money, of course, as is to be expected. It's not a popular thesis, but more and more I believe it to be true. Because the right is systematically dismantling the New Deal economic consensus, they must distract poor white voters with a sideshow: race, guns and religion. Sadly, it's working (witness the Tea Party).

This isn't new. When Nathaniel Bacon united slaves, indentured servants and poor whites, wealthy plantation owners extended privileges to poor whites and stirred up racial animosity. In the late 1800s populists attempted to unite blacks and whites again, Tom Watson for example proclaimed, "You are kept apart that you may be fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the the keystone of the arch of financial despotism that enslaved you both." Sound familiar? Emmanuel Saez found that between 2009 and 2011, the top 1% captured 121% of the income gains in the economic recovery. How could they capture more than 121% of the income gains? Because the incomes of the other 99% decreased!

It's hard to imagine a better time to exploit racial animosity. When Watson spoke those words in the late 1800s, Van Woodward notes that, "It is altogether probable that during the brief Populist upheaval in the nineties Negroes and native whites achieved a greater comity of mind and harmony of political purpose than ever before or since in the South." The response in the late nineteenth century was a new Jim Crow, laws that targeted blacks and gave poor whites a feeling of superiority. Do I even need note the similarity? The VRA is being dismantled, illusory racial progress is cited as a reason to end affirmative action, drug laws, and stop and frisk keep blacks in their place -- and now a media circus.

These aren't happy things to talk about. Systematic racial oppression isn't something that garners ratings. Pointing out the fact that Republicans use race to divide poor whites from poor blacks and thereby feed their wealthy donors is particularly taboo. But it's hard not to see that it's true. Trayvon Martin is dead. Putting Zimmerman in prison would feel great, and it would be a relief to know that the criminal justice system works occasionally. But, it wouldn't have brought Martin back, it wouldn't fix our rotten justice system, it wouldn't end police profiling, it won't fix the ghetto and it won't stop Republicans from using race to disguise class and demonize poor black men as lazy and poor black women as whorish.

But by letting him free, the jury serves as a reminder that the VRA is still necessarily. That poor whites are still deathly afraid of blacks. The left has ignored these issues for too long, not we have a clarion call. Zimmerman exploited laws designed exactly for how it was applied -- it's a law that allows black men to be shot and assumed guilty. We know that stand your ground laws are inherently racist, remember that Conservatives have always stood behind "rule of law," the trick is to only apply those laws to only to blacks. In many cases, police won't arrest a non-black shooter who claims to have acted in self-defense, a black defendant won't get the benefit of a doubt.

It's time for our nation to move past talking about a single trial and start talking about systematic racism, but when the Roman empire was crumbling, the people were delighted by bread and circuses.