Post-Zimmerman, race goes personal again


I am proud to live in a country that has made as much racial progress as this one has in the past half-century. We still can do more.

I was pleased when I became a father to be able to prune down the list of certain taboo places — swimming pools, amusement parks, department stores and, in the South, water fountains, restrooms, etc. — to which we could not go because we were “colored.”

I could wait until my son was a teen to give him a talk about how to behave if he was confronted by police or street thugs. After the George Zimmerman case, I added “neighborhood watch volunteers” to the list.

Zimmerman, son of a white father and Hispanic mother, was charged with shooting Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old, who was walking back to his family from a nocturnal snack run. His acquittal on July 13 exposed one of the deepest racial divides we’ve seen since the acquittal of O.J. Simpson in the 1990s — but with the racial roles reversed.

You see that divide in a Pew Research Center poll that finds blacks were more than twice as likely (56 percent vs. 20 percent) as whites to say they followed the Zimmerman trial news “very closely.”

Our racial knowledge is based on personal experience — and all of our experiences are very different. A quote from author Tom Wolfe I used after Simpson’s trial comes to mind: If a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged, “a liberal is a conservative who has been arrested.”

Yet even Angela Corey, one of Zimmerman’s prosecutors, said, “This case has never been about race.” But if it had not been for the incendiary racial angle, the pleas by Martin’s family to reopen the case after Zimmerman’s initial release might well have gone unanswered.

Considering how central personal experiences are to this political issue, I thought President Obama showed courage by stepping into what he called “a lot of pain around what happened here.”

He spoke of his own personal experiences and suspicions of profiling before he rose to fame — walking into stores, hearing the locks click on car doors — and “I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.”

Speaking for many other African-Americans, he made a stinging attack on Stand Your Ground laws with a comparison that set the conservative Twitter-sphere abuzz: “I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened?

“If the answer to that question is at least ambiguous,” he said, “it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.”

By shifting his focus from the Trayvon tragedy to the issue of scaling back laws like Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, Obama shifted to an issue about which government can and should take action.

Stand Your Ground laws in more than 20 states are a type of self-defense law that strips away any requirement to step back, evade or retreat from a threatening situation before opening fire.

Although Zimmerman did not invoke Florida’s law in his defense, the jury that acquitted him received instructions that borrowed language from the statute. If “he was attacked in any place where he had a right to be,” the instructions said, “he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force.”

In the five years after the passage of Florida’s law in 2005, average number of “justifiable homicide” cases per year by civilians tripled, compared to the five previous years. No one can say how much the Stand Your Ground law might have been responsible, but as dangerous as profiling can be, we don’t need laws that make the practice even more lethal.

Obama didn’t have to speak out on what many view as a local tragedy. But compared to other presidents who have wrestled with race, he speaks from a unique experience.

Email Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.