It's gratifying that almost everyone at DailyKos who has written a diary about this matter or commented upon it has expressed outrage at the killing, deep empathy for the family of Trayvon Martin, and suspicion about the behavior of the police.
Many DKers have expressed outrage at the apparently blatant racism of the behavior of the admitted killer (not murderer yet -- that's a legal term -- but he has admitted to the killing, the neutral homicide).
This kind of event often elicits from the members here stories of "racism." Generally, when white DKers talk about racism, they write about having encountered individuals with hate in their hearts for people of color. Sometimes white DKers explain that they didn't really understand the issue until they saw it though the eyes of a black friend or neighbor. Sometimes they tell an inspiring story of a white person, maybe a parent or a teacher, "standing up" to "racism."
Generally, though, I find those diaries to be about prejudice and not about racism. I'd like to take just a few paragraphs to explain how institutional racism, not prejudice, is likely to play itself out in this case, and how perfectly non-prejudiced people may end up creating a racist outcome and a denial of justice for the family of Trayvon Martin.
I'd like to put aside for the moment the motives and potential prejudice of the admitted killer, George Zimmerman, which seems to be a big topic for most people here tonight.
I'd even like to ignore for the moment the failure of the local police department and prosecutors to arrest Zimmerman and investigate the validity of his "defense."
I'd like to jump ahead to the hypothetical trial of Mr. Zimmerman, assuming that the police and prosecutors actually do eventually do the right thing, arrest Zimmerman, investigate the case, indict him and then use the investigation or trial or plea bargain to determine whether Zimmerman had a legitimate "castle" defense.
Because if Zimmerman goes to trial, jurors will be presented with a seemingly neutral set of rules to apply to this case. Yet the application of these rules will have devastatingly different consequences depending on whether the victim was black or white.
DKer Mallyroyal, who is African American, wrote a diary about how, when he wears a hoodie he looks "suspicious." Dker rexymeteorite wrote a diary in solidarity with Mallyroyal's saying that "We are all Trayvon Martin -- Solidarity with Million Hoodie March." As pleased as I am to see this expression of solidarity, what I want to show here is how, even under neutral rules, we are not all Trayvon Martin.
It depends on the color of your skin -- even in the calm, deliberate environment of a courtroom, even with a neutral judge, competent prosecutor and unprejudiced jury, applying neutral legal principles -- and to a lesser extent on gender.
The same principles that were at play in the fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo by police officers in the Bronx, New York, and the acquittal of the police officers of all charges will be at play in Zimmerman's case.
The same principles that were at play in the fatal shooting of Sean Bell by police officers in Queens, New York, and the acquittal of the police officers of all charges will be in play in Zimmerman's case.
It has nothing to do with individual white people actively disliking individual black people or all black people.
It has to do with what is reasonable -- literally. That is going to be the legal issue.
I don't want to get into the legal niceties here, because I would like folks to try to see the big picture -- the forest, not the trees.
In each of these situations, an armed person (police officers in the Diallo and Bell cases; neighborhood vigilante in Florida) shot an unarmed black person.
The excuse in all of these cases was: the shooter felts threatened. The police officers thought they were somehow under attack. Zimmerman thought that Trayvon Martin was somehow a threatening presence in the neighborhood.
As bad as the self defense and castle defense rules are, they are not completely crazy. They do not give an armed person license to go out onto the streets and kill people and then claim to have felt threatened.
In other words, what these cases have in common is that the legitimacy of that sense of feeling threatened is going to be objectively judged according to "neutral" legal rules.
That neutral legal rule is whether the sense of feeling threatened was reasonable.
"Reasonableness" has a long and storied history in the law, and has many definitions and permutations. But the big picture is that the rule usually asks: would a reasonable person have the same feelings in the same situation? If a reasonable person would have felt the same way, then the defense is going to work. If a reasonable person would not have felt the same way, then the defense is not going to work.
That's why you can't go running around looking for someone to shoot and claim it was self defense. If you put the average, reasonable person in that situation, that person would not find such fear reasonable.
Here's where it gets racist -- and critical race scholars and feminist scholars have been hacking away at the pretense of the "reasonable" man for a long time.
The typical juror is going to think of himself or herself or some abstract human as the "reasonable man" and is going to put that "reasonable man" in the position Zimmerman was in, just as judges and juries put the "reasonable man" in the situation of the police officers who killed Amadou Daillo and Sean Bell.
When they do, something magical will happen.
They will conclude that it was reasonable for several white police officers to feel that fear on a dark street in the Bronx confronting a black man in the vestibule of his apartment building with a wallet in his hands.
They will conclude that it was reasonable for several police officers to feel that fear on one of the more dangerous streets in downtown Queens, as a group of black men exited a strip club after a bachelor party.
And they may well conclude that it was reasonable for a neighborhood vigilante to feel fear when a black boy in a hoodie was in his "gated community."
But almost no juror in America would conclude, hypothetically, that a police officer or neighborhood watch volunteer would be reasonable to feel fear when confronted with a 65 year old white woman coming out of, say, a diner in a middle class neighborhood in Orange County, California.
Zimmerman may, on the other hand, not get off in these circumstances. But the test of reasonableness will remain to be applied another day. And when it does, the same ingrained fears or lack of fears will ensure that people of different races will be treated differently as victims, because whether the victim actually was a threat, the legal system invites us all to wonder, even if he wasn't a threat, might not I have felt that fear?
In other words, the "neutral" standard of what's "reasonable" allows us to simply impose this country's collective fears of black men into the delicate task of determining whether this particular black man should have been killed -- for safety's sake! -- under the circumstances.
The jurors don't have to be bad people or individually prejudiced. They don't even have to be white -- because the mainstream culture and media have scared black people of black people almost as much as they've scared white people of black people.
They simply have to be American -- to know what the typical American would think of a particular situation. To know what the typical reasonable American would fear in the presence of a black male at night.
This is what some of us have tried to get across about institutional racism -- how nice white people can be a cog in it, how nice black people can be a cog in it.
And if you've ever crossed the street at the approach of a group of black teenagers or felt your heart race on the subway when surrounded by a group of black men, then you're playing your part.
This is why critical race theory is so important and why some of us are puzzled when other DKers say something like it's time to stop focusing on race, and the less we focus on it the more it will go away.
It's not like that.
UPDATE: Many thanks for putting this in the Community Spotlight!