It can hardly be said too often that the George Zimmerman trial, or any one trial for that matter, only tells us a tiny bit about what happens when one person kills another and how they're treated by the justice system. Before the verdict, I predicted that Zimmerman would be acquitted, not because I'm some kind of genius, but based on two factors: There was no one alive who could contradict Zimmerman's account of what happened, and Florida law permits you to chase someone down, start a fight with them, and then shoot them if you start losing the fight. But what if we broaden our view a bit, and look not just at one case, but at thousands of cases? Does race matter?
You may be saying, of course it matters, but let's look at some data. John Roman of the Urban Institute took data from 53,000 homicides over the last few years gathered by the FBI, and produced this stunning chart (h/t Richard Florida):
In case you're having trouble seeing the lines, the combination least likely to be ruled a "justified" homicide is when a black person shoots a white person, while the combination most likely to be ruled "justified"—by a country mile—is when a white person shoots a black person. And this difference is even greater in states with "Stand Your Ground" laws. Here's Roman's explanation:
When the shooter and victim are of different races, there are substantial differences in the likelihood a shooting is ruled to be justified. When the shooter is black and the victim is white, the shooting is ruled justified in about 1 percent of cases, and is actually slightly lower in non-SYG states. Between 2005 and 2010, there were 1,210 homicides with a black shooter and a white victim—the shooting was ruled to be justified in just 17 of them (about 1 percent).
The story is completely different when there is a white shooter and a black victim. In the same time period, there were 2,069 shootings where the shooter was white and the victim black. The homicide was ruled to be justified in 236 cases (11 percent). In SYG states, almost 17 percent of white-on-black shootings were ruled to be justified.
Finally, I tested whether these racial disparities remained when we controlled for whether the victim and perpetrator were strangers, the state where the incident occurred, the year of the homicide, and whether the shooting occurred in a SYG state. The racial disparities remain large and significant. In fact, the odds that a white-on-black homicide is ruled to have been justified is more than 11 times the odds a black-on-white shooting is ruled justified.
It's easy to get too caught up in speculating about whether George Zimmerman is a racist, or what Juror B37's comments reveal about her particularly perspective, because those things are subject to interpretation and unfalsifiable assertions. But this is a stark reality that can't be denied.
These kinds of differences emerge not just because somebody on a jury has racism in their heart. They emerge when the system is infused with race at every step, coloring the conscious and unconscious assumptions and conclusions many different people make. It's in the questions the cops ask the shooter, in the decision the prosecutor makes about indicting someone, in the advice defense lawyers give their clients about when it's best to just take a plea, in the people who get chosen and struck from juries, and in the decisions those juries ultimately make. That's what makes it such a difficult problem to solve.
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