Did Race Really Play a Role in the George Zimmerman Trial and Verdict? (For Whites Only)

| July 18, 2013 | 0 Comments

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Bree Picower, Ph.D.

People keep asking how in this day and age can we have an all female and almost all white jury in the George Zimmerman trial?  As a white woman myself- I ask how can we not?  While disgusted with the knock-knock joke that opened the trial, the nugget of truth there asks who in the United States could have possibly NOT known who George Zimmerman was?  In painting broad strokes, who but white women could have the privilege of not paying attention to a case that terrorizes the daily-lived experience of people of Color?  Who but white women could be so willfully ignorant of the world around us?  Who but White women have the privilege of believing that we don’t have, as in the words of some of my undergraduate white female students, “a race-type thingy” (Picower, 2012).

By way of example of this phenomenon, I personally care nothing about sports.  Watching grown men, and the occasional woman, chasing balls of different sizes trying to put them in a variety of places holds no interest to me.  But in our sports-obsessed society surrounded by friends who engage with sports, it is a conscious choice, and some level of effort, to know as little as I do.  I choose to zone out when the coverage comes on the news, I choose not to talk with my friends about it.
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Choosing to know nothing about sports is a privilege because I don’t see a connection between sports and my daily life.  Just as knowing nothing about George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin was a choice these jurors made because they did not see a connection between this murder and their lives.  The painful difference here is that my ignorance is a playful joke among friends, while the ignorance of these jurors was positioned as neutrality and in fact was what made them QUALIFIED to serve as jurors.  It is the hallmark of our “post-racial,” “color-blind” society that the willful white ignorance that could make a person so unaware of how race/racism and oppression operates could be framed, in fact, as expertise.  This positioning provided the jurors with the power to make decisions over the very things they have no understanding of.  But this willful ignorance is of course a fallacy, and while many whites believe they are color-blind, their construction of the world around them is racialized in a myriad of ways.
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The CNN interview with Juror B37, whom I shall call “Becky”, revealed much of the racialized way in which she views the world, yet she is blind to the racialization within her retelling of the case.  On the one hand, she repeatedly stated that she believed “race did not play a role” in the case, yet her constructions of Jeantel, Martin and Zimmerman were dripping with racial stereotypes.
She constructed Rachel Jeantel, the young, Black, female friend of Martin, as an object of pity.  Becky “felt sorry for her” because of her “lack of education and communication skills”.  Becky decided for herself how Jeantel felt, claiming that Rachel “felt inadequate toward everyone” and “embarrassed by being there”.  Becky feels empowered to assign emotions to Jeantel and to decide she was “not credible” even though Becky admits that Jeantel “was using phrases I have never heard before, and what they meant.”  Even while ignorant of the actual words coming out of Jeantel’s mouth, Becky is positioned to discredit Jeantel’s agency and intelligence and reduce her to someone to feel “sadness for.”  Becky referenced “how they’re living, in the environment that they’re living in.”  In these statements, Becky, like other Whites, is able to distance herself from Rachel and other Black people, targeting how they talk, deciding how they feel, and denigrating where and how they live.  But of course, “race has nothing to do with it”.

In lock step with society’s construction of Black teenage boys as ‘thugs’, Becky assigns criminal elements to young Trayvon Martin.  She describes him as “acting strange” and “suspicious” and then associates this strangeness to criminal elements, referencing “vandals”, and “break-ins” and other dangers linked with Black teens in the white racial imagination.  Even when provided with multiple opportunities by Anderson Cooper, she expresses no sympathy for Trayvon providing much more humanity to “George” than for the teenager he killed. This inability to identify or empathize with Trayvon is in keeping with every step of this case, from Zimmerman following and murdering him, to Zimmerman initially not being charged, to the final verdict, and now to the disturbing viral trend of “trayvoning” in which (mainly) White teenagers take photos of themselves pretending to be dead, wearing hoodies with skittles and ice tea.  But of course, “race has nothing to do with it.”

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Trayvoning (sad)

Trayvoning (sad)

Finally, only by passively and unquestioningly consuming White supremacy, can White women who have chosen willful ignorance have the kind of tunnel vision that can paint George Zimmerman, the murderer of a 17-year old boy, as “a man whose heart was in the right place.” Becky chose (with support from Zimmerman’s lawyer), to construct Zimmerman as the neighborhood beacon of light, saving and protecting her and other white women from the dangers presented by young teenagers of Color.  Becky explains to us that “[Zimmerman’s actions] just got displaced by the vandalism in the neighborhoods, and wanting to catchthese people so badly, that he went above and beyond what he really should have done”.  I can almost picture her drawing “GZ” in hearts and baking lemon bars for poor, misunderstood and frustrated Georgie, whose only crime is being “overeager to help people” like her and the “lady and her baby” whom he was “so overeager to help” when her house was broken into.
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In keeping with her post-racial narrative, Becky again claims race was not a factor, stating, “I think if there was another person, Spanish, white, Asian, if they came in the same situation where Trayvon was, I think George would have reacted the exact same way.”  But she relates and sympathizes with George in a veiled racialized way in which she shares his frustration “with the whole situation in the neighborhood, with the break-ins and the robberies” and she assigns a level of heroism to him in the way in which he helped the neighborhood through his watch against “suspicious” people (read Black) which she would like him to continue.
The representation of Blackness in Becky’s interview is not unusual. Rather it is quite the norm in post-racial America to remove discussion of race yet rely on racial stereotypes in the white construction of reality. Because Becky see’s herself as race-neutral, she in fact also pleads to be found “not guilty” of racism in her decision.  She and the other juror’s “put everything into everything to get this verdict” and they “thought about it for hours and cried over it afterwards.”  The construction of the “nice white lady” is at play here, in which these generous women who did not ask to be in this position, worked really really hard for hours- HOURS(!) to come to a decision about the accountability of the murderer of someone’s child.  But they cried, so I guess it’s okay then.
Listen up white women.  This is unacceptable.  We have to stop pretending that we don’t see race and open our eyes to the ways in which our world is shaped by our racial privilege.  We have to stop pretending that we are race-neutral and these issues aren’t connected to us when in fact we are agents of power (in fact, we were the decision makers in this verdict!).  We have to stop othering and discrediting the emotional, material and lived experiences of people different from ourselves.  We have to stop pretending that our racial ignorance is neutrality that positions us as innocent and unraced within a white supremacist system.  And when we do join in protest against racism, we have to stop pretending that we are doing so from the same positionality as people of Color (see this tumbler as a positive example of owning privilege). We have to start calling our friends out on their lack of understanding or attention to race and engaging in constructive conversations with those around us.  While people of Color are painfully figuring out what they are going to tell their children and their students of Color about this verdict and what it means to live in America, we better ask the same damn question and start talking to our White children.

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