By Brenda Stevenson
Those who followed the Trayvon Martin case this summer did so not just because of the conflicting details of the shooting deaths of these two unarmed black youth, but because these cases, like too many others, have played out in our public consciousness as markers of American justice. Does “liberty and justice for all” actually exist; or are these words from our Pledge of Allegiance just part of the grand American narrative that is more myth than reality?
Justice was the first ideal put forth in the Preamble to our Constitution as one that would lead to a “more perfect nation” and was later codified in the 14th amendment. Thomas Jefferson was clear about the essential nature of “justice” in the new nation, writing in 1807 that “An equal application of law to every condition of man is fundamental,” and in 1816 that “The most sacred of the duties of a government [is] to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens.” George Washington agreed that the administration of justice is the “firmest pillar of government.” Although the implementation of justice has had a worrisome history in this nation, the people’s belief that justice is a fundamental right of everyone on American soil is rock solid. Within the African American community as well as other communities of color and varied ethnicities, however, the reality of justice as applied by local, state, and even federal courts can prove elusive.
It should not have come as any surprise then that a significant fear voiced in the black community over the many months since Trayvon Martin died is that George Zimmerman trial would demonstrate, once again, that African Americans are not equal before the law. Even more alarming, it demonstrates that black children—the heart of every family and community—are not exempt from a legacy of injustice that has plagued African Americans across the generations. The names of so many wrongfully killed and denied justice fill the communal memory, undermining black confidence in the criminal justice system. Seventeen-year-old Eugene Williams drowned on 27 July 1919 in Chicago after whites assaulted him with rocks and police charged an innocent black man. Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was tortured, murdered, and mutilated in Mississippi in 1955. Double jeopardy protected his confessed murderers. An NYPD lieutenant shot and killed 15-year-old James Powell in 1964, allegedly for lunging at him with a knife that was never found. A white policeman mistook 16-year-old Matthew Johnson for a car thief and killed him in 1966 in San Francisco. A Korean shopkeeper shot 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in the back of the head in South Central Los Angeles in 1991, and was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter but released with no jail time by the judge. The list could go on and on.
Couple this historical narrative, one that reaches back to the slave era, with past and current statistics — extremely high black juvenile incarceration rates (five times that of whites); sentencing differentials across color and class lines; the disproportionate number of black children tried and sentenced as adults (more than 50% of affected juveniles); the lop-sided school suspension rates for blacks (3.5 times that of whites); the larger proportion of black defendants who have to rely on public defenders; the extremely small number of black judges (about 6% on federal and state benches) — and it is clear why African Americans found it hard to believe that the truth would be found and justice rendered in Florida v. Zimmerman.
Africans Americans realize that that their children rarely carry the mantle of “innocence” or vulnerability that the public willingly bestows on other youth. They are more likely to be considered the criminal not the victim, even when they are left lying in a pool of blood and the other person is able to walk away. Black male and female teens are particularly bundled together in the myth of the urban black thug or gang banger. What black teen is ever deemed an innocent victim? When Soon Ja Du was found guilty of murdering Latasha Harlins, for example, the judge made it clear in her sentencing statement that it was Du, and not Latasha, who had been the vulnerable victim, and that Latasha — if she had lived — probably would be before the court on an assault charge. Likewise, George Zimmerman was found not guilty of the murder of Trayvon Martin because the jury believed that Zimmerman reasonably feared that an unarmed Trayvon would kill him.
Given the outcome of the Zimmerman case and countless others, many black parents are convinced that the criminal justice system is stacked against their children. The history of legal neglect and outright abuse is too long and deep. The image of black boys and girls as violent, rather than sweet, smart, and brimming with promise too palpable. Indeed, given this centuries-old cruel legacy, it is difficult to even imagine that a conviction of Zimmerman, or other similar acts of “justice” could recreate the public’s image of a black girl or boy as an innocent, vulnerable child — or ignite the black community’s trust in the nation’s law enforcement and court systems.
Brenda Stevenson is Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her books include The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots; The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimke; and Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South, selected as an Outstanding Book by the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights in North America.