Yes, the Zimmerman case was about race

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Today, George Zimmerman is a free man, and Trayvon Martin lies in a grave.

According to the defense, Trayvon’s death was his own fault for getting into a fight with George Zimmerman.  In his remarks after the verdict, defense attorney Mark O’Mara stated: If George Zimmerman were black, he would have never been convicted of a crime.  If the statement wasn’t so asinine, it would be laughable. The privilege to believe race doesn’t exist is the privilege of whiteness.

As a historian of African-American religion, I am not surprised by this verdict. Teaching 400 years of the middle passage, slavery, lynching, civil rights, and conservative Christianity in America makes me understand what happened in that Florida courtroom. It leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth, and a hardened, resolute heart about the other issue on trial in the Zimmerman case — race.

Race and the specter of racism, permeated the case from the opening to closing arguments.  In the oft-imagined fantasy world called “Post-Racial America”, the Zimmerman trial stands as a stark reminder that as much as Americans would like to think of themselves as beyond race, we have barely scratched the surface of our national disease of racism.

Race whitewashed from the trial

The Zimmerman trial suggests that in 21st century America, the color line is still the problem that W.E.B Du Bois proclaimed it to be in the 20th century.

In his closing argument just before the case of The State of Florida Vs. George Zimmerman went to the jury, prosecuting attorney John Guy said the case against Zimmerman was not about race. George Zimmerman stood trial for second-degree murder in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman pleaded not guilty, saying it was self-defense.

But to present that Zimmerman profiled Martin because of race was banned from opening arguments. Prosecutors were compelled to go along. Going along may have been a contributing factor in their failure to convict Zimmerman.

Throughout the trial, race was present in the courtroom. Consider the deployment of racial stereotypes by Zimmerman’s defense team. Trayvon Martin in their mind was a hoodie-wearing black teenager perceived as a potential threat to the community. He was being held responsible for Zimmerman shooting him. Rachael Jeantel was treated as an angry young black woman of limited intelligence.  Trayvon’s parents, Sybina Fulton and Tracy Martin, as suggested by the defense “mistakenly” believed their son was an innocent child.

Speaking volumes through stereotypes

The trial traded in so many stereotypes of African-Americans that it became hard to count them all. It was painful for me to watch, and especially in the case of Ms. Jeantel dividing the African-American community between those ashamed of her and those who ardently supported her in all of her authenticity.

Race, was also at the core of George Zimmerman’s actions. Prior suspects believed to have been involved in criminal behavior at that apartment complex were said to be black. The fact that George Zimmerman got out of his car to track Trayvon Martin spoke volumes about how African-American men have been profiled and vilified historically in America.

From being characterized as beasts and rapists in the 19th century to thieves and drug dealers in the twentieth, not even the first African-American president has substantively changed the ingrained racism that exists regarding black men and their bodies.