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U of T expert explores the George Zimmerman verdict

Professor Rick Halpern discusses the Trayvon Martin case

July 15, 2013 rally in Minneapolis, Minnesota to protest the Zimmerman verdict (photo by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr)

On July 13, in a case watched around the world, an American jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter charges in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012.

After the verdict, protests ranging from peaceful to violent broke out across almost every major American city. 

U of T News asked Bissell-Hyde-Associates Chair of American Studies Rick Halpern, a professor of History and the dean and vice-principal (Academic) at the University of Toronto Scarborough, about the case and race relations in America.

What sort of impact could this case have on race relations in America?

It’s hard to say, seeing how it’s only been a week since the verdict came down. I can say that the history of race relations in the United States is regularly punctuated for 200 plus years with critical legal and judicial decisions that have decisively reshaped racial politics – cases such as Brown v. Board of Education, which led to the desegregation of public schools in the 1950s, or Dred Scott v. Sandford, which upheld segregation in the late 19th century under the legal fiction of “separate but equal,” come immediately to mind. But these were Supreme Court decisions that dealt with legal principle, not the lower courts weighing in, so it is really too early to tell.

We’re seeing public protests across America.

I’m struck by how little rioting there has been, how little violence has taken place in the aftermath of the decision. There have been some standoffs with local law enforcement officials, mostly in California. The mobilizations have struck me for being peaceful and interracial; which I think needs to be something emphasized – they have involved a huge section of the progressive community joining forces with African-Americans in almost every locale. The scale of the mobilization really requires we take them seriously. So far the mobilizations have been largely symbolic – they are primarily protests – the weeks ahead will tell whether a specific agenda will be put forward. And here it’s important to note that the Zimmerman acquittal came just days after the high Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, the legislative high watermark of the modern civil rights movement, so it will be significant if these things are joined.

In terms of public opinion, why are people so divided?

The debate has broken into two general arguments. One is that the system has failed Trayvon Martin and that the system is broken. The other is that the legal system has functioned exactly as it has meant to function and how it has functioned throughout American history, and that is to underscore the second-class status of African-Americans, particularly African-American men.

What kind of impact does this case have on America’s international relations?

The persistence of racial discrimination and the history of racial violence have always handicapped the United States on the world stage. This was a major dynamic during the Cold War when it was fairly easy to point out a disconnect between American rhetoric on freedom and equality and actual American practice. In a post-Cold War era, this may complicate the United States’ ability to pressure countries like China, the former Eastern-bloc countries, and many of the Arab countries in the Middle East to be more respectful of human rights, more democratic, more inclusive and so on.

But I think the Zimmerman decision has to be placed alongside a number of other developments. It’s very contradictory situation; you have an African-American president, an African-American attorney general, yet you have a larger judicial system that seems to be ideologically conservative and increasingly looking to undo some of the progressive gains of the last half-century. Yet, at the same time, the justification for many of these reversals is to argue the United States is in a post-racial era.

There seems to be an increasing amount of support for the black community from people outside that community.

Progressives in the United States have long understood that change must be made with coalitions, and coalitions built around African-Americans and the demands for equality are quite durable. The politics of the United States have moved into the 21st century and the identities of the two major parties have shifted. There are many openings and fluidity to progressive politics, and maybe there is the potential for mobilization around these issues and the forging of a broad coalition that might actually begin to impact politics.

What kind of changes might occur as a result of this case?

One thing I saw with great interest since the Zimmerman decision is growing awareness of the states that have the Stand Your Grounds provisions in their legal codes. So there’s a lot of potential here. Also, the last few days have seen calls to have the Department of Justice involve itself in a renewed prosecution, utilizing federal civil rights statutes.

Laws and local regulations have regularly been used to define and circumscribe African-American rights, and to limit African-American mobility. This is not peculiar to the United States; South Africa is another key example of the ways that the legal system is used to limit black mobility. So there’s a long entrenched tradition working against a color-blind system.

What is unknown is whether the decentralised judicial system made up of different states and federal circuits will begin to understand, refine, maybe even strike down these pieces of legislation.

Does this case illustrate any problems in ways youth are perceived in America – as more violent, less trustworthy?

Certainly black male teenagers and young adults are seen in the dominant white culture as a criminal element, and that came through very clearly in the trial. One could also look at the extraordinary high levels of incarceration of young African-Americans in American prisons. As well, one could point to the ubiquitous racial profiling that has become part of policing in almost every major city. So there certainly is an association in the larger consciousness between black youth and criminality and instability, and that’s something that is contributing to how young people of color are perceived. 

Gavin Au-Yeung is a writer with University Relations at the University of Toronto