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George Zimmerman case brings race, discrimination in U.S. to forefront

Published: Updated:

The recent acquittal of a white man for the shooting and killing of an African American teenager in Florida has rekindled long simmering debates about racial inequality and gun violence in the United States.

The reaction to the acquittal was an emotional one for many who called into question the fairness of the ruling.

The fear of emotions running high on the subject has prompted U.S. President Barack Obama to call for peace in the wake of the verdict. Violence in response to the case, Obama said, will “dishonor” the memory of the young man killed in the incident.

“The ‘not guilty’ verdict reinforces the belief that there is no justice in a justice system when it permits the killer of an unarmed African American male teenager to go free,” said Oklander Christian Dark, Interim Dean of the Howard University School of Law.

At the root of the case, for many, is the argument of racial discrimination. Race and discrimination cannot be belittled, President Obama said. “There are very few African American men” in the United States that have not experienced discrimination, he said.

"You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago," President Obama said.

“A lot of African American boys are painted with a broad brush,” he said.

But some legal experts said no real evidence exists to support the theory that the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, or the verdict, had anything to do with race.

“There are people who when there’s a black victim and a white perpetrator who rush to the assumption that this just has to have been motivated by race. I think that if you look at the facts perhaps that theory is not born out,” said John Malcolm, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Malcolm called the death of Martin tragic and said Zimmerman likely acted unwisely that night. “But that doesn’t mean that he committed premeditated murder.”

Zimmerman called police on Feb. 26, 2012 in the early evening after spotting Martin walking in his gated community in Sanford, Florida where Zimmerman patrolled the neighborhood as part of a citizen driven effort to prevent crime.

During the phone call, Zimmerman described Martin as “suspicious” and said “this guy looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something.” Zimmerman told the officer that Martin looked black and was holding something in his hand.

Martin was carrying a canned drink and a bag of candy.

“These guys, they always get away,” Zimmerman said about halfway into the call.

The police officer told Zimmerman they didn’t need him to follow Martin, but he followed Martin anyway. No one else alive besides Zimmerman knows what really happened next. But one thing is certain—a struggle ensued between the two, after which Zimmerman fatally shot Martin.

Although some Americans think racism is a thing of the past, many African Americans believed that Zimmerman racially profiled Martin, a common experience for many people of color in the United States.

“Racial profiling is symptomatic of racial bias, baseless assumptions made about the conduct of people based on race and ethnicity, and this is especially a problem for African Americans and Latinos in this country,” Dark said.

Although many were deeply upset by the verdict, Daniella Gibbs Léger said she was not surprised by it.

“I think that African Americans view the judicial system with a healthy dose of skepticism and they should … The system is historically one that has been weighted against people of color,” said Léger, senior vice president for American values and new communities at the Center for American Progress.

Some statistics support this assertion. African Americans are imprisoned at a rate six times higher than whites—and while five times as many whites use drugs as African Americans in the United States, African Americans are imprisoned for drug offenses 10 times more frequently, according to statistics from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

They are also murder victims of gun violence six times more often than whites— conversely, they commit murder at a rate seven times higher than whites, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics.

One of the major debates sparked by the shooting of Martin and the Zimmerman trial was about a group of laws that allow civilians to use lethal force, including guns, to defend themselves. Known as “stand your ground laws,” they don’t require people to retreat to safety first even if they can.

However these laws were not really an issue in the Zimmerman case, according to Robert Cottrol, a law professor at George Washington University.

“I think basically a lot of people that had this as an agenda, are sort of waving the stand your ground flag when it’s really not pertinent to the case,” he added.

Twenty U.S. states have these laws. Critics say they threaten public safety and disproportionately impact people of color.

Proof of bias in the laws is not conclusive, but there is growing evidence to support its existence. A recent study by the Urban Institute Justice Policy Center found that white people who kill an African American are 354 percent more likely to be protected by these laws than a white person who kills another white person.

Since the Zimmerman verdict, civil rights organizations and even U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder have called for a reexamination of these laws.

“We must examine laws that take this further by eliminating the common-sense and age-old requirement that people who feel threatened have a duty to retreat, outside their home, if they can do so safely,” said the nation’s chief law officer during a speech before the NAACP earlier this week.

However, one of the underlying issues that could emerge with repealing these laws is that it could put an immense and unfair responsibility on crime victims, Cottrol said.

“You would have to make these calculations under conditions of extreme stress that a perpetrator has thrust on you,” he added.

These issues aren’t likely to be resolved anytime soon. However Léger said that people opposed to the laws and who are angry about the verdict will begin to direct their efforts to repealing some of these laws.

The verdict has already spurred different civil rights organizations to mobilize, including the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee.

“These laws impact all minorities … African American, Hispanic American, Arab American and across the board,” said Abed Ayoub, Director of policy and legal affairs at the ADC.

“Ultimately now in this country what we have is a race problem—where a lot of people look at brown or black people as the other,” Ayoub added. “And that impacts us.”