The Course of Reason

Some Brief Thoughts On Race, Legality, and Morality

July 18, 2013

George ZimmermanThis post is going to be short and sweet, because there is only so much I can add to the commentary all over the internet about the George Zimmerman trial. I want to talk for a minute about legally right vs. morally right, and about how the two are often conflated. I want to talk about how our justice system sometimes is the antithesis of morally right, and how this means that legally right and morally right contradict each other. And I want to talk about the fact that even if none of us know what happened that night, we can be sure that race played a role in the way that the trial came out.

1. We know for a fact that the law is not always right. We figured this out when we realized that slavery was wrong, when we decided women have the right to vote, and when civil rights happened. Every time we change the law we recognize that it's fallible and we can do better. It's not too hard to realize that law does not equal morality.

Many people say that, legally, the verdict in the Zimmerman trial was correct. We could accept that and still have a problem with it. It might be the case that it was a perfectly legally acceptable verdict. That does not mean that it's a morally acceptable verdict. We all are allowed to exercise our critical thinking skills independently of the law and come to conclusions about whether we believe that things like Stand Your Ground laws are ethical. For the most part, people who are criticizing this case are saying that this is an illustration of what's wrong with these laws.We have to be willing to look further than "it's the law" when discussing difficult moral questions, and people should not be allowed to hide behind the law when their views and actions are criticized.

2. In many ways our justice system is set up explicitly to discriminate: the choice of jurors often involves plucking those uneducated about race issues to decide a racially charged trial. The types of evidence that were allowed were skewed. We can see that something is off about the way our justice system is set up based on the disproportionate number of people of color in jail, and the fact that the lawyer that you can afford often determines the verdict.

White people are less likely to go to jail for the same crimes, particularly in stand your ground cases. This is not in line with what is morally right. We have evidence that someone who kills a black man is far more likely to be acquitted in a stand your ground case. We know that if a victim is white, the punishment is generally harsher. This case, particularly if the correct decision was reached in a legal sense, is evidence for some of the discrimination inherent in our system. We get to talk about that. We have evidence that it exists.

3. None of us know what happened that night. None of us were there, it's obvious that the best any of us can do is some amount of conjecture. However what we do know is that race played a significant role in this trial, and most likely in the action itself. We know that many perceptions of a young black man in a hoodie influenced the level of suspicion aimed at Martin. We know that Zimmerman's race affected the jury's ability to connect to him. We know that race affected the perceptions of Rachel Jeantel. So even if this case was decided 100% accurately, we can still use it to explore some of the racial prejudices that surround incidents like this, and question whether our justice system really is race-blind as we like to imagine it is. There is nothing wrong with asking those questions, and it can only create a better system if we do ask these questions.

 

About the Author: Olivia James

Olivia James's photo

Olivia James is a recent graduate from St. Olaf College who is now navigating the post-college pre-grad school waters. She was a philosophy and religion major and was a member of St. Olaf's SSA. She is also an avid swing dancer, voracious reader, and all around nutjob. 

Comments:

#1 James D Bishop (Guest) on Saturday July 20, 2013 at 10:12am

It ain't necessarily so...

You assert '...our justice system is set up explicitly to discriminate: the choice of jurors often involves plucking those uneducated about race issues to decide a racially charged trial...' says who? Sources for such broad brush accusations would be nice. What evidence of racial bias can you document in the case in question?

'...The types of evidence that were allowed were skewed...' Spend some thoughtful time in law school and you will discover that evidence is always controlled by the judge as much of what each side would like to admit is prejudicial.

'...We can see that something is off about the way our justice system is set up based on the disproportionate number of people of color in jail...' Another possibility is that the majority of crimes are committed by people of color. Again, where is your evidence?

'...White people are less likely to go to jail for the same crimes, particularly in stand your ground cases....' Source?

'...This case, particularly if the correct decision was reached in a legal sense, is evidence for some of the discrimination inherent in our system...' Very glib, but how can you support the claim?

'...None of us know what happened that night. None of us were there, it's obvious that the best any of us can do is some amount of conjecture. However what we do know is that race played a significant role in this trial, and most likely in the action itself...' That was as self contradictory a paragraph as I have ever read.

The facts we do know are that Mr. Zimmerman violated no laws and was struck in the face by Mr. Martin, knocked to the ground, sat upon, and beaten. In response, Mr. Zimmerman shot and killed him in a lawful act of self defence. The jury examined all of the evidence and argument and so decided. I see nothing morally or legally incorrect about that.

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