But in the courtroom where George Zimmerman is on trial for second-degree murder, race lingers awkwardly on the sidelines, scarcely mentioned but impossible to ignore.What does that look like — race lingering awkwardly and impossible to ignore?
It's a trial! There are rules of evidence, and there's the whole concept of criminal justice, which involves an accusation, based on specific law, about a specific incident and exactly what this particular defendant did.
It's not about larger narratives and how this might fit into a template that we think explains some larger social scheme. To suggest that it should and that something's wrong with the trial if it does not is to get it exactly backwards.
For African-Americans here and across the country, the killing of Mr. Martin, 17, black and unarmed, was resonant with a back story steeped in layers of American history and the abiding conviction that justice serves only some of the people.Seeing one event steeping in layers of history and within the context of abiding convictions is the very mechanism of prejudice. But the NYT is, apparently, sorry the trial isn't a festival of prejudicial thinking! How to write that up into an article? Call in the sociologist:
“For members of the African-American community, it’s a here-we-go-again moment,” said JeffriAnne Wilder, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Florida. “We want to get away from these things, but this did not happen in a vacuum. It happened against the backdrop of all the other things that have happened before.”It's not awkward to shunt the backdrop of all the other things that have happened before to the sidelines during a trial. Rather, it's precisely what the judge and lawyers and jurors are required to do.
Yet inside a Seminole County courtroom, with the prosecution’s case against Mr. Zimmerman now over, race only occasionally punctuated the proceedings.Yet?! No! Race should not be put where it isn't relevant under the rules of evidence. Punctuation like that would violate the norms of a criminal trial. The backdrop of all the other things that have happened before is reason for Americans — especially black Americans — to care about these norms.
For supporters of the Martin family, Mr. Martin’s death was part of a more complex tale of profiling and injustice.But trials are not to be transformed into a "more complex tale." They are to be kept focused on the specific incident under consideration. And those who care about the more complex tale ought see the connection between their concern and the law's insistence on that focus.
... The charge is second-degree murder, inflicting death with spite, hatred or ill will. But no one in the courtroom is saying outright that race or racial hatred entered into the shooting.They're not saying it outright because witnesses have to testify about what they actually heard and saw on this occasion. It's not as if something is being suppressed and hidden. Talking only about the evidence is the way to shed light and bring clarity to the task of deciding what happened.
In the cocoon of the courthouse, even Mr. Martin’s bullet-scarred hooded sweatshirt, positioned for jurors in a clear plastic frame, appeared less a poignant symbol for the thousands who marched in his name than a lamentable but necessary piece of evidence.For the NYT, the courtroom is a "cocoon," and somehow reality resides in the minds of the throngs who feel the poignancy.
Still, black pastors, sociologists and community leaders said in interviews that they feared that Mr. Martin’s death would be a story of justice denied, an all-too common insult that to them places Trayvon Martin’s name next to those of Rodney King, Amadou Diallo and other black men who were abused, beaten or killed by police officers.This suggests that Zimmerman should be convicted because of the poignant feelings about all these other people.
“[Rachel Jeantel] was mammyfied,” said Ms. Wilder, the sociology professor, expressing disappointment over the reaction. “She has this riveting testimony, then she became, overnight, the teenage mammy: for not being smart and using these racial slurs and not being the best witness. A lot of people in the African-American community came out against her.”I guess I need to look up the race-studies technical term "mammyfied." I don't remember Mammy — in "Gone With The Wind," for example — being dumb.* Interesting that it's the sociology professor promoting the use of stereotypes. We should be rising above the stereotypes and treating people as individuals, and trials are designed to do that. This resistance to the workings of the criminal trial are truly deplorable, and it almost seems intended to exacerbate the terribly sad feelings of grievance that come from the larger historical context. Fair trials should be understood as a remedy for all the other things that have happened before. To present the fair trial as additional wounding is truly execrable.
* "[T]he mammy was often illiterate though intelligent in her own sense. Among many of the slaves, there could have been a mammy who possessed the abilities to read and write, often taught to her by the children of the family for whom she worked.... [M]ost of her intelligence was a result of past experiences and conflicts. In particular, a mammy of an aristocratic family could be identified by her air of refinement."