George Zimmerman's acquittal on criminal charges in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin has sparked anguish and outrage across America. These passions stem from a starkly racial view of the incident: a light-skinned man singles out a black teenager as "suspicious," stalks him with a gun, provokes a confrontation, and gets away with murder. But, as with any criminal case that comes to dramatize larger controversies, the symbolic narrative often overshadows the actual facts.
Thus, in the Huffington Post, blogger Charles Clymer states three "irrefutable facts": "1) Zimmerman had a history of making unnecessary 911 calls about 'suspicious' black persons in his neighborhood, 2) he followed Trayvon Martin, got out of his truck, and further pursued him despite being told not to by dispatch, and 3) he did so with a gun." But this widely credited version is far from irrefutable.
While Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch leader, had called police 44 times over eight years before the night of the shooting, only four calls were about possibly suspicious people identified as black, and at least three about whites. Zimmerman has consistently claimed that after the dispatcher told him not to pursue Martin, he headed back to his truck -- and then Martin accosted him. Physical evidence and eyewitness testimony corroborated that Zimmerman was beaten.
The assumption that Zimmerman targeted Martin for racial reasons was common from the start, partly due to misleading media reports (NBC aired 911 call excerpts in which Zimmerman appears to stress that the possibly suspicious person is black -- but he was responding to the dispatcher's question about the individual's race).
Many accounts have downplayed Zimmerman's Hispanic background. A column on the website of The Nation, a leading left-wing magazine, concedes that Zimmerman and his family members are undeniably "not white," but claims that "Zimmerman's apparent ideology . . . adheres to white supremacy."
Yet, two years before the shooting, Zimmerman challenged local police over what he considered a cover-up of the beating of a homeless black man by a white police lieutenant's son. It is reported that he routinely mentored black children.
None of this negates the possibility that Zimmerman's suspicions toward Martin, an unarmed teenager on his way to an apartment where his father was staying, were partly race-based -- consciously or not. Racial profiling of young black males, practiced by people of all backgrounds and rooted in a tangled web of attitudes that reflect both prejudice and crime demographics, is a complex, painful issue. The Zimmerman case has been a focal point for those concerns.
Does its outcome show America's endemic racism? In fact, initial reports about Martin's death and apparent police inaction elicited strong cross-racial sentiment in favor of prosecution. A month after the shooting, both whites and nonwhites in a CNN poll overwhelmingly believed Zimmerman should be arrested. Yet the trial evidence left more than enough reasonable doubt to support a verdict of not guilty.
Racism is hardly dead; Internet discussions of this indisputably tragic story have been plagued by vile racist comments directed at the dead teenager. But the rush to declare Zimmerman guilty of both murder and racism, regardless of facts, is also a form of racism -- and injustice.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.