The death of Trayvon Martin has created a significant controversy in the United States and it has attracted attention around the world.
From a legal standpoint, the main points of contention are factual in nature. If Zimmerman acted in legitimate self-defense (as he claims), then he would seem to have acted within the law. If Zimmerman did not act in legitimate self-defense, then it would seem that he would have acted outside of the law and thus should presumably be charged with a crime. There also seems to be the possibility that both people believed they were acting in legitimate self-defense and, of course, perhaps there are other possibilities as well. From an objective standpoint, the currently available evidence does not seem decisive. That is, in a hypothetical trial a competent attorney could weave a narrative that accounts for all the existing evidence that supports either the defense or the prosecution.
Not surprisingly, media folks and other people have been rather busy digging up information regarding Zimmerman and Martin. Their proponents have, naturally enough, focused on presenting positive information whole their opponents have fixated on the negative. In the case of Martin, considerable focus has been placed on the claim that he was suspended from school because of an empty bag containing marijuana residue. In the case of Zimmerman, focus has been placed on past behavior that seems negative.
Also not surprisingly, race has been brought in as a factor. It has been claimed that Zimmerman acted on the basis of racism and that Martin was shot because he was a young black man. It is this aspect of the matter that
has served to generate considerable attention.
Given the history of racism in the United States, it would not be absurd to consider that race was a factor in the incident. However, an accusation of racism requires adequate support if it is to be anything but a mere accusation. Naturally, to assume that there must be racism involved because the parties involved were black and Hispanic would itself seem to be a racist assumption. This is because it would assume that a Hispanic must be motivated by racism and not some other factors.
The difficulty of discerning whether or not racism is a causal factor can range from very easy to very difficult. For example, if people in Klan regalia murder a black person while shouting racist slogans and make it clear that they are killing the person because s/he is black, then it would be eminently reasonable to believe that racism was a factor. However, the matter is obviously not so clear in the case of Zimmerman. As such, to confirm a hypothesis of racism as a causal factor would require sorting out what would serve as evidence for such a claim and showing that such evidence exists.
As might be imagined, sorting out what counts as evidence for racism can be a rather controversial matter. As noted above, there are some easy and obvious cases (such as those involving self-identified racists who make it clear they are motivated by racism). However, when there is no Klan hood or shouted racist slogans, then a more subtle sort of evidence is called for. This, of course, raises the concern that the evidence might be rather too subtle.
One obvious starting point is the ethnicity of those involved. On the face of it, for racism to be a factor, then those involved would seem to need to differ in ethnicity (although this could be disputed-perhaps a person could be a racist regarding his/her own race). While this might be a necessary condition, it is clearly not a sufficient condition-otherwise every (presumably negative) interaction between folks of different ethnic backgrounds would be at least partially caused by racism. This seems to be so absurd that, at the very least, the burden of proof would need to be on the person who claims that racism is always a factor. Interestingly, if it could be shown that racism is always a factor, then it would not be a special factor in any such cases-since every such case would involve racism.
Getting back to the specific case, the fact that Zimmerman and Martin are of different ethnic backgrounds means that racism is a possibility-but only a mere possibility.
A second avenue of evidence is what a person says. In the United States there is a reasonably clear collection of racist terms and the use of them can be taken as evidence for the possibility of racism. In addition to specific words, there is also (obviously enough) the other things that a person might have said before or during the incident in question. It must, of course, be noted that such terms and the use of certain remarks is not conclusive evidence of racism. To use the obvious example, people in an ethnic group sometimes use racist terms regarding their own ethnicity. In an interesting coincidence, as I type this, I am listening to Kanye West and Jay-Z singing “Niggas in Paris” courtesy of Grooveshark. However, it would seem unreasonable to say that West and Jay-Z are presenting evidence of their racism against blacks. Naturally, it could be contended that the use of such terms is privileged by race/ethnicity and if a person of a different ethnicity uses such a term, then it is racist. This view, obviously enough, seems to involve accepting that racial or ethnic differences are actually significant and meaningful differences-which might be regarded as being a form of racism. However, discussing this matter would take the discussion to far afield and it must be set aside, at least for now.
There is also the fact that when people are angry, they tend to use the words they think will do the most damage or express their anger and hence they often use terms with racist connections. To use the obvious analogy, when people are angry, they also tend to swear, mainly because of what such words express and what they do. As such, saying things that sound racist need not be strong evidence that a person is racist.
Of course, it can be countered that people who are not racist do not use such terms even when angry. As such, a person using such terms when angry is saying what they really think, but conceal under normal conditions. This, of course, rests on the assumption that anger reveals what is truly in a person’s mind as opposed to the view that people say in anger what they do not really mean. As might imagined, this can be rather difficult to sort out as we do not fully understand the workings of the mind.
In the specific case at hand, the transcript of what Zimmerman said during his 911 call does not contain any blatantly racist remarks. Naturally, considerable attention has been paid to the unintelligible parts of the recording. However, these seem to be more of a Rorschach test for the listener than actual evidence of any racist comments. The mere fact that a garbled word or words might sound something like a racist word or phrase is hardly adequate evidence of racism-after all, people can hear “words” even in natural sounds and the sounds of animal and this hardly proves that the wind or a husky was actually saying specific words. Even if audio experts are brought in to work on the audio, there is still the obvious question of whether the “improvement” of the audio would reveal something that was actually said, or would merely make garbled sounds resemble a racist (or non-racist) remark. However, if the audio were properly cleaned up and then revealed unambiguously racist words, then this would be quite a different matter.
People do point to the fact that Zimmerman does say things that seem racist to them and this can be used to make a reasonable case in favor of the racism hypothesis. However, there is the obvious question of whether Zimmerman would have reacted similarly had the situation differed only by the person not being black. If Zimmerman would have said comparable things seeing a young Hispanic, white or Asian, etc., then it would be reasonable to infer that he was either not racist (or was racist towards everyone). Of course, there is the obvious question of whether such evidence is available or not.
It could also be replied that since I am a mostly Caucasian French-English-Mohawk mix, I simply cannot see the racism that would be obvious to someone of a different ethnicity/race. While it is tempting to dismiss such a response as being racist (after all, it makes assumptions about me based on my genetic background), it is reasonable to consider that different experiences that are often linked to ethnicity/race can lead to different perspectives. To support this, I will use my own experience.
While I look rather white, I have been a professor at an historically black university since 1993. While I would not claim that this enables me to have a “trans-racial” perspective, it has given me a somewhat different perspective on matters involving race and racism. I have found that because I have white skin, people will say and do things around me without being “on guard” against seeming racist. Over the years, I have noticed that people will sometimes say and do racist things that they actually do not see as racist-though the certainly seem racist to me. One classic example is that when I first started teaching at Florida A&M University, people would innocently ask me “what is it like teaching those people?” I would, of course, say “You mean students, right?” Then there would always be a very uncomfortable pause as the person realized that they had just said something that seemed just a bit racist. These sort of experiences have served to make it clear to me that what might not seem racist to one person might, in fact, be racist when properly considered. At the very least, it might truly seem racist to the person. As such, I would be a fool not to consider that my perception of the matter might be in error-that I am missing real evidence that others can clearly see. Of course, being a philosopher, I must also consider the fact the people sometimes see what is not, in fact, there. This raises the obvious problem of sorting out perception and reality-a matter that goes far beyond the limited scope of this essay.
Third, an obvious place to look for evidence of alleged current racism is to look for evidence of past racism. After all, people tend to act in accord with their character. This, of course, can run us in a bit of a circle: to find out whether past actions where racist or not, we would need to use the standards that we need for the current case. As such, turning to past cases would require establishing that those cases involved racism. If those past cases are in doubt, then they would not serve as very good evidence for the claim that the current case involves racism. If the past cases were clearly cases involving racism, then they would lend credence to a current claim of racism.
While there has been considerable focus on Zimmerman, as this is being written there seems to a lack of decisive evidence of his alleged evidence. While absence of evidence is not itself evidence of absence, the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who claim that he is a racist. But, as noted above, perhaps such evidence exists and I simply cannot properly interpret it.
It might be argued, as some have, that Zimmerman cannot be a racist because he is “half Hispanic.” This is, obviously enough, not a good argument. Racism is, ironically enough, an equal opportunity employer.
My overall conclusion is, obviously enough, one of uncertainty. As this is being written, there seems to be a lack of truly decisive evidence showing that Zimmerman is a racist or that he acted from racist motivations. Likewise, there seems to be a lack of truly decisive evidence that he is not a racist.
Given a presumption of innocence, it seems reasonable to hold that a person is not a racist until proven otherwise. As such, I would not be inclined to claim that Zimmerman of racism at this time. If additional evidence becomes available, my view could change-but, as always, a conclusion should be based on adequate evidence that is objectively considered. I am, however, keeping in mind that I could be just as blind to evidence of racism as the people who asked me about teaching “those people” in the example I gave above.
As always, my commitment is to the truth and if decisive evidence can be provided for or against a claim of racism, then I would accept such a claim based on the evidence.