What It Do: It’s Not About Zimmerman

The criminal trial is over, but the court of public opinion is in full swing—at least until the next Kimye distraction—over George Zimmerman, and his actions that resulted in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Certainly, we can all agree that he was overzealous, crossing into delusional, regarding his role as some type of community watchman.

It is also pretty clear that Zimmerman presumed Trayvon to be a criminal, based on the fact that the teenager was a six-foot-plus black guy wearing a hoodie at night. This reveals some degree of racial prejudice on the part of Zimmerman, but what exactly does that mean, and why does this case specifically say so much about the state of American society in 2013?

Zimmerman doesn’t appear to be any kind of fire-breathing Klansman. If anything, the racial prejudice he displayed is of a kind with that which permeates our culture, even among many black Americans, if you want to be completely real about it. And his delusion as a gun-toting neighborhood guardian would be the kind of thing that could make for the plot of a comedy movie, if it hadn’t had such tragic results.

Hapless delusion combined with small-minded perception and the result was a hole in Trayvon Martin’s chest.

None of this is to excuse or mitigate Zimmerman’s actions. He took that young man’s life, and is responsible for that. If the situation was self-defense, it was Trayvon who was defending himself, at least in my view. Even if Zimmerman was getting his ass handed to him, he was the one who had escalated things. You don’t get to switch from aggressor to victim just because the victim bites back.

But in this rush to make a monster out of Zimmerman, to make him the poster child for all racial toil, we are missing the underlying significance of what happened.

George Zimmerman shot and killed a 17-year-old boy, not because he is a neo-Nazi, or even because he hates black people, but because he wasn’t that bright and made bad choices. Again, that doesn’t absolve him of responsibility (the so-called “justice” system took care of that part), but it does raise some chilling implications, especially in the light of the verdict.

Why did some people feel so protective of Zimmerman? White solidarity?

Hardly. Zimmerman is half-Cuban, and if Trayvon Martin had been white, I’m quite sure Fox News and the rest would be ranting about “immigrant crime.” When America looked at George Zimmerman, it saw itself, and was terrified. Some people responded by “otherizing” Zimmerman, making him the representative of all that is wrong and evil about our society. Others took the opposite approach, seeking to turn him into an innocent victim and posthumously transforming Trayvon Martin from a normal teenager to a vicious thug.

The truth is that Zimmerman is not that different from the teeming masses of Middle American men with too little self-actualization and a weak understanding of the world, who imagine they can take control of their environment and, ultimately, their life situation, with that magic American totem: the gun. Truthfully, I’m amazed this kind of thing doesn’t happen more often.

And because Zimmerman is so run-of-the-mill, the real heartbreak of the entire situation, from Trayvon’s death to the verdict, cuts much deeper than it would if he was some kind of cross-burning maniac. This isn’t some outlier. It’s just a particularly tragic depiction of the truth of our culture and society.

His actions, and especially the actions and statements of his supporters, serve as an undeniable reminder that we haven’t come but so far in our attitudes toward young black men, and it is accepted by many to assume criminality by default. The verdict tells us that our system is still designed to protect the privileged at the expense of the powerless.

At the end of the day, though, none of this is new, or particularly surprising, and the issues brought to the surface by the trial of George Zimmerman aren’t going anywhere. Even the media response to the verdict perpetuated Zimmerman’s “black=criminal” attitude, with conservative talking heads working themselves into a frenzy at the prospect of potential race riots in retribution. Ironic that people defending a man accused of vigilantism would worry about others taking the law into their own hand.

There were no widespread riots, of course. In fact, most of the reports of violence I saw involved overaggressive police response to demonstrations.

What matters, going forward, is how we respond on an individual level. Do we turn George Zimmerman into something he isn’t—monster or victim? Or do we seek to understand the human foibles that led to the situation, and to work on those foibles if and when they appear within ourselves?