Saturday, April 14, 2012

Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, And Our Efficacious Justice System

Now that George Zimmerman has been arrested and charged with 2nd degree murder, can we all agree that our justice system works quite well, if also -- occasionally -- sluggishly? After all, this singular piece of anecdotal evidence -- the immediate non-arrest of Zimmerman -- was more than enough for many of those on the left and in the media to indict Florida's gun laws and the justice system at large as being responsible or somehow implicated in Sanford Police Department's negligence and incompetence. So, when the temporary lapse of justice is corrected, certainly that fact is sufficient evidence to reject the narrative that was built upon it, right?

They might object that this little bit of (as it turns out, transient) injustice is just "another in a long line", and so has merely occasioned their pontificating upon certain "systemic inequities" or on the devastating consequences of laws like Stand your Ground. Of course, these parties, if pressed to provide examples of this "long line", would either be unable to do so or would proffer examples which, far from demonstrating contemporary racial injustice, would just as often demonstrate the opposite, such as Mumia Abu-Jamal or Troy Davis. That is, more instances where the system has worked precisely as it ought to with no hint of racial disparity in its workings.

Of course, even engaging in this conversation at all does the left a bit of a favor, accepting their assumption that this singular case constitutes vibrant, undeniable evidence that racism is still a significant problem in America. When, even if it were indisputable that Zimmerman had racial motivations, or that he wouldn't have reacted similarly to a similarly dressed/aged/demeanor-ed white boy in the same circumstance -- which is disputable -- it still would just be a single case of racism and overzealous paranoia, not in the system, but in one person's mind and actions. Similarly, the subsequent bungling of the case by the Sanford police, even if racial bias within the department regarding this incident could be demonstrated -- though no such evidence has been cited -- it also would be a singular instance of racism, and would do nothing to testify against the vast amount of daily non-racist workings of the justice system at large. Anecdotal evidence could never do such a thing, by definition.

None of this is to deny that our inheritance as a nation includes the residual effects of past racism. That's indisputable, but those who preoccupy themselves with this fact smuggle in a value judgment along with it, namely that since residual effects of past racism exist, it is society's duty to address and attempt to rectify them. Which, of course, they offer no argument for, but simply take it for granted that everyone ought to agree with them. When, in fact, there are much better arguments against this proposition and in favor of its negation, namely that society only has a duty to be just in its own time

Once the prime objective of the Civil Rights Movement of equality under the law was achieved by ostensibly erasing racial distinctions from the law, it seems obvious that there can be no legal means for addressing the residual effects of past racism directly unless one wants to revert to once again recognizing race under the law. And thereby undoing much of what the Civil Rights Movement fought for.

At this point, those on the other side might object that, since racial disparities in income and crime -- to cite two examples -- persist, therefore equality under the law hasn't been achieved. And, when they do protest thus, I respond by noting that they are simply mistaken. Equality under the law never is about achieving particular social outcomes, especially not along racial lines which the law no longer officially is allowed to recognize as meaningful, as should be the case. To the extent that some particular racial disparity is necessarily evidence of some currently extant racial bias within the system, that of course ought to be addressed and appropriately rooted out. However, such a relationship is very difficult to ever be certain of as, if it does exist, it rarely exists in any official sense but rather in the dark corners of the minds of some minority of cops and judges. The majority of systemic inequities that persist can be causally linked to our history as a nation -- which results in things such as de facto segregation and inherited poverty from previous generations creating a 'wealth gap' along racial lines, and all the consequences thereof  -- while the effects of current racism can be shown to be negligible in comparison.

If the travesty of our "racist" justice system is that it occasionally gets things right a few weeks late, rather than immediately, then we truly do have the best, most efficacious justice system ever devised. But why would you have ever doubted it?


  1. Let's agree that the shooting death of Mr. Martin was tragic, and that the Zimmerman arrest is just (if late), and then let's place the Zimmerman case aside for the moment.

    I am concerned with your thinking relative to the effects of racism on the justice system.

    Help me understand how evidence of "residual effects of past [systemic] racism," in light of "society's duty to be just [only] in its own time," exempts society from addressing said effects, which, surely, left unaddressed, will influence present and future?

    Lest I lack evidence, I offer the racial disparity around drug-related charges and arrests. Although studies indicate that Americans of all races use narcotics at nearly identical rates, African-Americans are charged and arrested at much higher rates. Let me know if you need specific citations or figures.

    Do you see this as evidence of "currently extant racial bias within the system?"

    Thanks for your consideration.

    1. Hey plb,

      No need for citations on the evidence, I've seen all the same studies and accept them as legitimate.

      As to your first question, the effects which affect the present and future only are visible to the present because of recognition of race as significant to the public, while race can't be important to the law if the law is to be just and color blind, as it ought. Hence the presently existing inequities are inequities between abstract categories of persons that the law does not -- and can not, if it's to be just -- recognize. That is, between black and white.

      Does society have a duty to address the inequities that exist between short and tall people? Beautiful and ugly ones? Brown-eyed and blue-eyed ones? Because there are such inequities and some of them are even relevant (tall people make more than short, attractive people can find employment as waitresses and dancers where ugly/fat can't etc.) We should find such a notion of government interference to 'correct' such 'inequities' absurd.

      The only difference with race is that with race the law used to be unjust along racial lines, and so the law of the past, acting upon persons of the past, is implicated in guilt for the persisting inequities. But what difference does this make? In light of this our options are for the law to once again take actions which recognize people's skin color as somehow important, or to suffer the inequities we've inherited from the past which only exist between categories of persons anyway. Categories which are not in themselves meaningful or important and which the law ought to ignore.

      If we choose to have the law address race again, then we are attempting to rectify an injustice of the past by pronouncing some judgment upon the ancestors of both the perpetrators and victims of past injustices in the present. This is necessarily an injustice in the present to 'correct' something that we enlightened can not recognize as an injustice in the present, namely persisting inequities between categories that have ceased to have meaning to the law.

    2. Identifying a littany of real examples of unjust discrimination will not suffice as grounds for ignoring unjust discrimination. (I will only parenthetically note that your examples refer to employment and not prosecution.) The view that the human penchant for injustice seems both ubiquitous and intractable is no justification for winking at it. The opposite is true. The degree to which bias of any sort is extant (and we seem to agree that it is) is the degree to which it should be, in your own words, "addressed and appropriately rooted out."

      (This, too, is important for us to realize: Not always was - or is - the problem "the law [itself being] unjust along racial lines." Both poll taxes and the sentencing disparity between crack and powder were/are 'color-blind' legal practices, the application of which have clearly been unjust. But not to nitpick; perhaps you meant that the practical reality of the legal system was unjust along racial lines, in which case I agree.)

      We may also agree that neither the courtroom nor the legislature is the battleground where unjust discrimination is most effectively challenged. As Professor Michelle Alexander suggests at the end of her book, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," a more grassroots approach may be in order.

      Best Regards.

  2. Correction of previous comment, end of third paragraph: I omitted the word 'praxis', i.e. "... present and future praxis?"