Like so many people, I’ve been following the death of Trayvon Martin, a Florida teen shot and killed by a neighborhood watch captain.
Here’s what we know so far: a man named George Zimmerman called police saying he’d spotted someone wearing a hoodie who was acting suspiciously. Zimmerman himself had previously been arrested, though later charges were dropped, for resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer. Yet Zimmerman, against the advice of the dispatcher on the 911 line, pursued the unarmed 17 year old and shot him to death, much of which was captured on audio.
The family and scores of people across the nation have been hammering the Sanford, Florida, authorities for failing to arrest Zimmerman. But now it’s spiraling into a media circus, with the grieving family caught in the middle. The audio of their son’s death is heard on news reports and available on the internet. A little known black militia is claiming they’ll make a citizen’s arrest of Zimmerman, which the family doesn’t want.
The lives of young black men are treated with suspicion and casual indifference by too many. For every case like this that makes headlines, an untold number more pass as par for the course. So while many people are asking for justice for Trayvon Martin, I have to ask myself, as a reporter and an American, how we can leverage the anger over individual incidents into a larger restructuring of perceptions and justice. There’s a well-documented bias against black boys and men, ranging from schools to jobs to the criminal justice system. (It’s worth reading each of the linked studies).
So, where do we go from here? It’s easy to work up ire about individual cases, but harder to work on systemic change. Systemic change is a long process, often tedious, with reversals in both the judicial courts and the court of public opinion. (Remember the exoneration of the five young men wrongly convicted in the Central Park jogger rape case? How many times did their faces flash across tv when they were arrested and convicted, and how many of us today even remember their names?)
Too often, the overwhelming statistical evidence of bias is rebutted by citing individual crimes committed by black boys and men — and certainly those are committed, far too often, usually against African-American victims. I simply hope that in the case of Trayvon Martin, the heat of anger is accompanied by the light of justice. Context is a strong part of justice — tracking patterns and calling out bias. The developing field of data-driven journalism has provided some new ways of tracking how different Americans are treated. For example, data journalist John Keefe of WNYC used police and geographic data sets to show that the highest marijuana posession arrest rates in New York were predominately in minority neighborhoods, although national drug statistics show more use of marijuana by young whites than blacks. The WNYC data was used in conjunction with a story on alleged illegal searches.
Logic doesn’t always carry the day. In the case of racial bias in the criminal justice system, there’s sometimes an implicit tolerance for wrongful actions because, in the minds of people who don’t consider themselves morally compromised, it’s just the cost of keeping order in a chaotic society. The more that we can turn the mirror towards ourselves and ask what compromises we are willing to make to feel safe, and who gets wounded, slandered or killed as a result, the more likely we are to change. Laws are critical, yet on some level change has to come as a result of a sense of moral urgency. During the Civil Rights movement, images of hoses and dogs provoked a sense of moral urgency among people who considered themselves bystanders to racial injustice.
Today, books including The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander are drawing the much needed connections that could lead to a national push for reform. But many other tools are needed. Local news is addicted to crime scene shots, which adds to a sense of paranoia. What if that attention was turned to sorting genuine criminal patterns from citizen paranoia? The law, the media, academia — all have a role in reshaping American justice. But in the end, it’s up to us. There’s a beautiful challenge that the writer Aldous Huxley sets out when he wrote, “There’s only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.” To me, that’s not a contradiction to organized campaigns for justice. It’s a reminder — accountability begins with us. The first thing we can do to be accountable is neither to tune out the horror of a shooting like that of Trayvon Martin, nor to let it push us to unfocused anger. Fear and compassion fatigue may be George Zimmerman’s best allies. Knowledge and persistence are the tools we can use spur justice in this case, and in our nation.