George Zimmerman’s acquittal is not a mere validation of one White man’s fear of and disdain for young Black males and the deadly force with which these emotions were unleashed upon an innocent boy. Rather, it is a terrifying and heartbreaking expression of six White female jurors’ desire to empathize with and protect a man whose liberty was put in peril on account of his choice to live outside the boundaries of all that is reasonable in social life, by stretching those boundaries to the extreme. His acquittal, in effect, redefines the limits of what is reasonable for White Americans to do to their African-Americans counterparts, in order to not simply excuse or tolerate instances of anti-Black violence, but to welcome it. Thus, it is irrelevant whether people in the States currently balk at Trayvon Martin’s murder, the trial proceedings and/or at the sense of relief and vindication certain segments of the White American population have expressed upon news of the verdict. What could prove most pernicious to individual Black people’s lives and American society in general, is the verdict’s potential to alter social expectations between White and Black Americans.
You see, it is of little importance whether, say, any one White individual considers the Zimmerman trial a travesty, if he/she assumes the end result as a new social circumstance or condition that now has come to shift and change the basic understandings of social life between Whites and Blacks. That person could very well grieve for Martin, express a deep seated disdain for Zimmerman’s acquittal and still—however cynically—come to accept the verdict as a “game changer” for race relations in the United States. After all, common sense would dictate that one cannot alter the outcome of the trial, the best one could do is to try to avoid another Trayvon Martin-like tragedy from taking place. And since one cannot directly prevent Zimmerman-like minded individuals from wreaking havoc, the alternative is to reduce all possible triggers for such behavior. That responsibility would most certainly lie with African Americans.
From this perspective, the Zimmerman trial verdict could very well place a burden upon Blacks, specifically on males. They, aware of the Martin case, could be expected by Whites to be “reasonable” and in order to insure their safety, to take it upon themselves to avoid looking “suspicious” in regards to dress, speech or manner. On the flip side, White Americans who come to encounter a Black male who by his dress, speech or manner does not fulfill this expectation, may take him to be acting unreasonably, and thus warrant suspicion. Within this context, it would only be “reasonable” to expect the White individual to feel threatened and proceed to “protect” him or herself in a manner akin to George Zimmerman’s actions on the night in which he shot and killed Trayvon Martin in supposed self-defense.
On November 27 of last year, another Black teenage male from Florida was shot and killed by a White man in a gas station after the teen apparently refused to turn the music down in his car. The shooter allegedly felt threatened by the boy and his two companions, though it was he who approached and engaged them, and only he was armed. When commenting this incident with a white American colleague on Facebook the day after the Zimmerman trial verdict was announced, in the midst of sincere expressions of pain, anger and frustration regarding the danger Black males are exposed to, he said, “he should have simply turned the music down.” This, from my colleague’s perspective, was simply the most reasonable thing to do in light of what could and did in fact happen to the boy. The problem is that such a course of action could only be considered reasonable within a socio-cultural context where White American racist violence against Blacks is to be accepted and embraced as a justifiable occurrence of everyday life. One that individual African-Americans have the responsibility to avoid. For their own sake, of course. But most importantly, it would seem, for the sake of Whites. For no reasonable White person would ever fancy him/herself a murderer. Unless it was the only reasonable thing to do.
Guillermo Rebollo-Gil (PhD JD) Universidad Metropolitana de Puerto Rico