After Zimmerman verdict, a racial divide lingers

In two Americas, one white, the other black, Dave Muth and Angelo Henderson have entirely different views on a Florida jury’s verdict that found George Zimmerman not guilty in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin.

Their deep racial divide is in lock step with public opinion polls released during the past week showing that African Americans overwhelmingly disagreed with the verdict, compared with a narrow majority of white Americans who agreed with it.

One poll also showed a stark difference of opinion in the role of race in the case, which exploded into the public consciousness last year when Zimmerman, then a 27-year-old armed neighborhood watch volunteer for his gated community, confronted and killed Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old who was walking back to the home of a family friend after a trip to the store.

Zimmerman’s acquittal of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges by a jury of six women was accepted by Muth, who is white, and rejected by Henderson, who is black, reflecting a wider racial rift.

Even the jurors were split in their views of whether justice was served. On Thursday, the lone minority on the panel, a Puerto Rican woman, said in a television interview that Zimmerman “got away with murder,” but based on Florida law she had no choice but to vote for his acquittal. Earlier, a white juror said in a television interview that she accepted Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense and that he was justified in shooting Martin.

Since the verdict, Martin’s parents and activists have held rallies around the country urging the Justice Department to consider federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman and calling for reforms to gun laws such as “stand your ground” that jurors and legal experts say played a role in Zimmerman’s acquittal.

Henderson, a Detroit radio news talk show host, was clear on why his opinions about the case track with those of many African Americans. He thought that Martin was profiled by Zimmerman because of his skin color, a perspective that he said is informed by experience. When he was 15, Henderson said, police in Los Angeles detained him because he was wearing the same color shirt as a black man suspected in a purse snatching. The officers handcuffed him and pushed him in the back seat of a patrol car.

“My heart was racing. I was as nervous as can be,” Henderson said, recalling that day in the late 1970s. Had his white friend’s mother not come running out of an office shouting, “He didn’t do it,” Henderson said, “who knows what would’ve happened.”

“I think about how many brothers have been in the back seat of that car and there was nobody who could come,” Henderson said.

Muth, 56, a retired airline industry worker living in the Tampa Bay area, was just as clear on why his opinions track with those of many white people. The Retreat at Twin Lakes, the gated community where the shooting occurred on Feb. 26, 2012, had recently experienced several burglaries and, according to Zimmerman’s accounts, Martin, who was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, was “acting suspicious.” Muth said it is not surprising that the teenager caught Zimmerman’s attention.

There is no way of knowing who approached whom and initiated the confrontation that led to Martin’s death, Muth said, citing indecisive reports. Still, Muth, a gun advocate, believed Zimmerman had a right to be armed.

He also believes thatblack people are profiled, sometimes unfairly, but there’s a reason for it. “I think there’s a stereotype, and some people feed the stereotype, like hip-hop culture. There is a bias, prejudice or profiling that comes from experience.” Muth added: “There’s a perception that young black men are disrespectful of authority.”

Henderson’s and Muth’s views align with social research on racial attitudes toward the criminal justice system that has been collected for decades.

“It is not at all surprising that Blacks and Whites have such different interpretations of the Zimmerman verdict,” said political scientists Jon Hurwitz and Mark Peffley, whose book, “Justice in America: The Separate Realities of Blacks and Whites,” focuses on disparate racial perspectives on the criminal justice system.

“Our research, as well as the research of many others, has shown that African Americans are quite aware of, and familiar with, racial biases in the system, and the large majority of criminology studies have found these biases to be real in many respects,” said the authors, who answered questions in tandem by e-mail.

When Hurwitz and Peffley asked why African Americans are more often arrested and imprisoned than white people, black respondents tended to focus on bias within the system itself.

But white respondents had a different explanation. “The difference in arrest and incarceration rates comes down to their judgment that ‘blacks are just more likely to commit crime’ ” or that “many younger blacks don’t respect authority,” Hurwitz and Peffley said.

“It is often quite difficult for African Americans to interpret certain events without a racial perspective, just as it is quite difficult for many Whites to interpret these events with an appropriate appreciation for this perspective,” the authors said.

Polls conducted in the days after the July 13 verdict bear out these starkly different views of the criminal justice system. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll, 87 percent of African Americans said Martin’s shooting was unjustified and 86 percent disapproved of the verdict. A Pew poll also found that 86 percent of black respondents were dissatisfied with the verdict.

Whites, by a slight majority, 51 percent, approved of the verdict, according to The Post-ABC News poll. In the Pew poll, 49 percent of whites approved of the verdict, with 30 percent disapproving.

Further, the Pew poll found that 78 percent of black respondents thought the case “raises important issues about race that need to be discussed.” But only 28 percent of white respondents agreed with that statement, with 60 percent saying race was “getting too much attention.”

President Obama sought to bridge the divide and explain African Americans’ strong feelings about the case in an impromptu speech several days after the verdict. He said he could have been Trayvon Martin 35 years ago and said that, like many African American men in this country, he had been followed in the past while shopping in department stores and heard “the locks click on the doors of cars” while walking across the street.

“Those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida,” Obama said. “And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.”

Henderson believes that Obama’s remarks rang true and the speech shows that “having a black president matters.”

Henderson sat down his son, Grant, 19, for a lecture that many black parents, including Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., have had with their sons since the Martin case captured the country’s attention.

“I had to explain that you can’t do some things as a young African American as others can, like walk through some neighborhoods without being profiled,” he said.

With his speech, Henderson said, Obama reinforced that message. “Black America needed him to say that, needed to know that he cared and that he could relate.”

Conversely, Muth believes the president was wrong to inject race into a case that, in his opinion, had nothing to do with it. Muth, born in Chicago and raised in Los Angeles, said his grandfather and grandmother would say a neighborhood was going bad because black people were moving in. But he said that his family never used racial slurs and that he has a low tolerance for racists.

The Zimmerman case “was not the right battle for this cause,” Muth said, meaning the issue of civil rights. He said Martin’s case does not compare with such racially charged incidents as the bombing deaths of four girls in a Birmingham, Ala., church in 1963.

“The local municipality there, the original district attorney, the law enforcement” in Sanford, Fla., had it all right in their handling of the Martin shooting, Muth said. Obama, he said, “jumped to a conclusion” that supported Martin.

“To bring all this racial stuff into it seems counterproductive,” Muth said.

Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.
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