I’ve seen a lot of people on my facebook feed saying that we have no way of knowing whether racial bias influenced the Zimmerman “not guilty verdict.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, although most of the white people on my friends’ list are outraged at the verdict, all of the “the system works!” contingent are a familiar shade of pale.
The disproportionate incarceration of black men can really be the result of two things:
A. Black men are inherently more likely to commit crimes, to then be accurately suspected of crimes, to be arrested for crimes and to be charged and convicted with crimes (all conditions necessary for the following statement to be true: “Black men are disproportionately incarcerated because, ceteris paribus, a black male defendant is inherently more likely to be guilty,” or,
B. jurors – being random people pulled off the street – are more likely to conclude that a black man committed a crime, all other things being equal.
One of these explanations is supported by the available evidence regarding the crime rates in different groups, while the other is not. Option A is true if jurors in general are not unduly influenced by an pre-existing biases against black men.
“But wait!” some may object. “Zimmerman wasn’t black!” Zimmerman’s entire defense was that Trayvon attacked him so viciously and frighteningly that any reasonable person in Zimmerman’s shoes would fear death or serious injury. I knew as soon as the trial became about whether Trayvon attacked Zimmerman, he was going to get acquitted. Racism makes many all too willing to seriously entertain the idea that the dead black teenage kid, armed only with skittles, probably did attack the lunatic with a gun who was stalking him.
Maybe some good news: The Justice Department has also announced that they are considering filing federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman. The burden for those charges would be proving Zimmerman was motivated by racial bias in targeting Trayvon Martin with the intent to deny him the use of public accommodations, in this case the street.