The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin has sparked a national dialogue about race and justice. In this edition of Valley Public Radio’s commentary series The Moral Is Ida Jones, Professor of Business Law at Fresno State, says the verdict makes her question our nation’s commitment to the principles of justice and fairness.
What happened to the principles of justice and fairness the U.S. was supposed to represent?
I’m speaking to you as a black parent of 3 sons (and a daughter). Twenty-five years ago, when my sons were younger, I taught them to wait inside stores and businesses for me--not outside--because I knew groups of black teen-aged males automatically drew suspicion from police. It never seriously occurred to me that they could have been killed by anyone who thought they might be doing something wrong. Yet Zimmerman’s acquittal for killing Trayvon Martin means just that--that any one of my sons could have been killed if they’d been walking in the gated community of family or friends, wearing a hoodie, and had reacted to being followed by an unfamiliar, white man. I’m grateful that they are law-abiding adults now. At the same time, I wonder whether they’ll ever be safe.
The jury’s decision represents another step in our country’s continued decline in its commitment to principles of equality of opportunity, fairness and justice for everyone regardless of color, and its increased movement toward opportunity based on money and color.
I’ve been a member of the legal community for more than 36 years. I chose the legal profession because I saw the law as a way to remedy the injustices that existed after the civil rights laws were adopted in the 1960's. Although I knew changing laws doesn't immediately change attitudes, I believed the legal profession would be instrumental to implement changes that reduced discrimination and promoted universal justice and fairness. But that clock seems to have turned back as evidenced by acquittal of Martin’s killer, many states’ adoption of stand your ground laws that justify killing for reasons other than true self defense, and the current spate of voter registration laws that limit access to the right to vote. I despair that in fundamental ways, the legal system has returned to pre-civil rights times. Long-deceased Supreme Court Justice Taney’s words in the Dred Scott decision more than 140 years ago ring in my ears: that black men have no rights that society need respect.
I’m a U.S. citizen who thought the U.S. was an example of an enlightened country where a person’s skin color was irrelevant to his or her rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. The Zimmerman jury's decision makes it clear that the victim’s color is key to the right to life. If one is a black male teenager, walking in a white neighborhood, he must immediately surrender to any stranger following him or he can be killed and the killer will go free. What a significant departure from the principles of justice and fairness that the U.S. is supposed to represent!
The views expressed on The Moral Is are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Valley Public Radio.