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A Possible Bright Side in Zimmerman’s Acquittal

The history lesson in Zimmerman’s acquittal in the murder of Trayvon Martin

In the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb has the best big-picture analysis of what the acquittal of George Zimmerman means:

[T]he problem is not that this entire affair marks a low point in this country’s racial history—it’s that after two centuries of common history, we’re still obligated to chart high points and low ones. To be black at times like this is to see current events on a real-time ticker, a Dow Jones average measuring the quality of one’s citizenship. Trayvon Martin’s death is an American tragedy, but it will mainly be understood as an African-American one. That it occurred in a country that elected and reëlected a black president doesn’t diminish the despair this verdict inspires, it intensifies it. The fact that such a thing can happen at a moment of unparalleled political empowerment tells us that events like these are a hard, unchanging element of our landscape.

This is the depressing takeaway from a verdict that will resonate with Americans — and divide them — for years. But I see a silver lining in the grey skies.

My first hope is that people in states with Stand Your Ground laws will urge legislators to change these provisions empowering citizens to shoot first, ask questions later.

My second hope, more quixotic still, is that Americans will come to see the mistake in the decision Chief Justice John Roberts wrote last month in the Voting Rights Act case. Here is the crux of the Court’s justification for shredding this foundational piece of civil rights legislation:

But history did not end in 1965. By the time the Act was reauthorized in 2006, there had been 40 more years of it. In assessing the “current need[]” for a preclearance system that treats States differently from one another today, that history cannot be ignored. During that time, largely because of the Voting Rights Act, voting tests were abolished, disparities in voter registration and turnout due to race were erased, and African-Americans attained political office in record numbers. And yet the coverage formula that Congress reauthorized in 2006 ignores these developments, keeping the focus on decades-old data relevant to decades-old problems, rather than current datareflecting current needs.

In sum, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “in 50 years, things have changed dramatically.” He reiterated the point several times: “Our Nation has changed,” he insisted. When it comes to racism, “our nation has made great strides.”

In the wake of the spectacle of the George Zimmerman trial — in which a dead 17-year-old black boy was prosecuted more effectively than his shooter and in which six jurors were easily persuaded that pursuing and killing a black teen in a hoodie makes good sense — it appears America still has some distance to travel on the path to racial equality.


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