In the wake of the verdict in the Zimmerman trial, The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen was among many pundits explaining the limits of our criminal justice system. That discussion makes sense … if you’re white. (More)

“The Rule of Law” and White Privilege

Cohen’s article began:

In the next few hours and days you’ll likely be inundated with analysis and commentary and solemn expressions of outrage or joy about what the acquittal of George Zimmerman means – to the nation, to its rule of law, to its politics, to its racial divide, to its deadly obsession with guns, to Florida’s ALEC-infused justice system, and to probably 100 other things I can’t list off the top of my head. This is what happens when a verdict comes down in a high-profile criminal trial – when life or liberty are on the line and the country is split, and angrily so, upon the wisdom and the justice of the outcome.

He writes about the limits of our legal system and criminal trials:

Trials like the one we’ve all just witnessed in Florida can therefore never fully answer the larger societal questions they pose. They can never act as moral surrogates to resolve the national debates they trigger. In the end, they teach only what each of us as students are predisposed to learn. They provide no closure, not to the families or anyone else, even as they represent the close of one phase of the rest of the lives of the people involved. They are tiny slivers of the truth of the matter, the perspective as narrow as if you were staring at the horizon with blinders on, capable only of seeing what was not intentionally blocked from view.

We’ll never know exactly what happened on that dark, rainy night, he concludes:

And what comes next, surely, is a wrongful death civil action for money damages brought against Zimmerman by the Martin family. That means another case, and perhaps another trial, with evidentiary rules that are more relaxed than the ones we’ve just seen. And that means that a few years from now, after Martin v. Zimmerman is concluded, we’ll likely know more about what happened that night than we do today. That’s the good news. The bad news is that no matter how many times Zimmerman is hauled into court, we will never know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about what happened that terrible night.

And since we can’t know “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” his argument ends tacitly, we should accept the verdict because … well … “the rule of law” is better than the alternatives.

“Beg for mercy and hope you live to see the next day”

Except the rule of law was not better than the alternatives for Trayvon Martin, just as it wasn’t for too many young black men in the U.S. Far too often, if you’re a young black male and you walk too fast, or too slow, or in the wrong place, or at the wrong time, or just happen to “look suspicious” … “the rule of law” is to beg for mercy and hope you live to see the next day.

And if you don’t beg quickly enough or in quite the right way and the other person decides to kill you, then far too often “the rule of law” is that your parents get to bury you, your killer gets to walk away, and a white person gets to write a hand-wringing article about how the justice system is imperfect but it’s better than the alternatives.

And it is … if you’re white.

“Blame you for your own death”

Part of white privilege is not realizing that, for young black men, “the rule of law” is not much protection at all.

In 2012, at least 136 unarmed black men and women were shot and killed by police officers, private security guards, or volunteer ‘crime-fighters’ like George Zimmerman, according to the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement‘s April 2013 Operation Ghetto Storm report. That report relied primarily on police statements and statistics, with details of each incident filled out by media accounts and other public sources. Of the 25 armed volunteer ‘crime-fighters’ who killed unarmed blacks in 2012, the report found that only ten were charged with a crime. What’s more, claims of self-defense are far more likely to be accepted if the victim is black. So if you’re a young black man and you defend yourself from a white attacker, “the rule of law” is more likely to blame you for your own death.

Maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t have “the rule of law” for any of us … until “the rule of law” works the same for all of us.

Maybe, just maybe, if enough of us lived in fear of being killed because someone thought we “looked suspicious” – say, by young black men who wondered why we were following them or hurriedly reaching for our phones when we saw them walking along a sidewalk – and if we knew they would walk away free while we lay dying … because they would say they “felt threatened” and society would pore over our lives for any hint of bad behavior and conclude that we got what we deserved … maybe, just maybe, we would rethink our laws on guns and self-defense.

But that won’t happen, because we all agree that a society without “the rule of law” would be horrible. Just horrible. As horrible as “the rule of law” was for Trayvon Martin.