What the Trayvon Martin case is telling us about ourselves
Exactly what happened the moment George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., the night of Feb. 26 isn’t much clearer now than it was six weeks ago.
No witnesses saw the shooting. A few saw or heard the struggle that preceded it, but they’ve given murky and conflicting accounts that establish very little.
Some circumstantial evidence could be construed to support Zimmerman’s claim that Martin was assaulting him; other evidence could be construed to support claims that the shooting was indefensible and that the Sanford Police Department didn’t bother to look closely at it.
Despite the lack of clarity, many Americans have taken sides.
A recent USA TODAY/Gallup poll reported that nearly three-quarters of black Americans believe Zimmerman would have been arrested had the 17-year-old Martin been white. Only a third of whites agreed.
Half of the black respondents said Zimmerman was guilty of a crime, and another 21 percent said he was probably guilty.
Many polls have shown that blacks and whites have radically different views on racism in America. Most whites believe the country has largely moved beyond it; most blacks disagree. It doesn’t take much imagination to see why: Unlike whites, blacks in America suffered centuries of slavery and official cruelties, including being murdered for no other crime than having dark skin.
When it was first reported, Martin’s death fit squarely into a long, horrifying narrative that includes the savage 1955 murder of another teenager, 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi. Details that surfaced later have led many whites to see more recent specters, including the public vilification of the Duke lacrosse team in 2006 after three of its members were falsely accused of raping a black woman.
The Trayvon Martin case looks almost engineered to pit one narrative against the other.
Beyond the contradictory witnesses, reporters have dug up accounts of Zimmerman’s past generosity and friendships with blacks. But they’ve also dug up accounts of past scuffles and what looks to be an enforcer streak. And there’s the undeniable fact that Martin was unarmed, and Zimmerman went after him while carrying a gun.
Police videos from the night of the killing literally embody the conflicting public perceptions. One segment shows his face apparently unmarked by fighting; another shows the back of his head with what looks – with enhancement – like a long gash consistent with his version of events.
The case is rife with ammunition for both sides. Just about anything Zimmerman’s defenders say can be countered by something from Martin’s champions. And vice versa.
Clarity will come. A federal investigation now under way should reveal whether the Sanford police jumped to conclusions and failed to pursue justice. The Justice Department will be aggressive, and it will release what it finds.
Many claims that are murky now will be either verified or falsified. Zimmerman, for example, reported being treated for head injuries by a doctor the day after the shooting. If so, there would be medical records to back up his claims of an assault. We’ll find out what’s in – or not in – those records.
Until then, this shooting seems likely to keep on pitting one set of racial assumptions against another. So far, it has shown us more about ourselves than it has about what happened that tragic night.