Viewpoint: Zimmerman brings needed discussion on race and crime

While the George Zimmerman case has reached its non-guilty verdict in court, it is far from closed in the public’s eye.

To some, Zimmerman is a racially profiling criminal getting away with murder. They view the trial as an illustration of a broken, racist justice and law enforcement system that’s only interested in protecting those who are white. To others, he’s an innocent victim, and the whole ordeal is a waste of attention that would never have been heard of if it weren’t for Zimmerman’s and Trayvon Martin’s races.

But the case is less about one man and more about the tragedy of a dead, unarmed teenager and a public divided by racial arguments in a supposedly post-racial America. It is, inevitably, about race. It should be. It needs to be.

A 17-year-old boy is shot dead, and a trial almost didn’t happen, because the police didn’t think it necessary. And there’s the problem. Whether Zimmerman is guilty of murder, manslaughter or nothing at all, when someone is killed, police should not assume someone was guilty unless proven innocent solely based on race, which is what it appears the police originally investigating the crime did. No matter the racial background, every potential crime should be treated the same, and the spotlight on the Zimmerman trial is just one example of many where it’s shown that justice is not equal for everyone.

Despite what people like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg might say, racial profiling in relation to crime happens on a regular basis. Regular citizens do it. Police officers do it. The controversy over policies like New York City’s stop-and-frisk is just one indication of many that racism in the law enforcement sector is going strong in America. Since the policy began in 2002, hundreds of thousands of people are stopped every year. A regular 80–90 percent are innocent. More than 50 percent of those stopped are black. The next-highest percentage is Latinos. The smallest is whites. The guidelines used by the police for stopping someone require a good deal of subjective view and are based on such factors as how a person dresses and acts. In the Zimmerman case, a lot of talk was on what Martin was wearing the night of his death. It simply looked suspicious. And that, like Zimmerman did, is what police officers base their policies on.

Racism is especially evident in drug-related crimes. The U.S. Sentencing Commission reported that although only 14 percent of illegal drug users are African-Americans, 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses and 56 percent of those in state prison due to illegal drug use are African-American. It was also reported that, in general, African-Americans get sentences that are 10 percent longer than those of whites who are convicted of the exact same crime. African-Americans are disproportionately biased against when it comes to crime. It seems people are much more likely to believe that blacks more commonly do illegal drugs than whites.

Earlier this year, ABC News conducted an experiment in a park where it had certain individuals try to steal a bike at different times and recorded the result. The first was a white male in “gangster-like” clothing. Although he blatantly made it obvious to pedestrians that the bike was not his, no one tried to stop him. He was able to break the bike out of the lock and ride away within minutes. The next person up was a black young man in the same clothing. Almost immediately, passerby were aggressively confronting him, even going so far as to yank away his tools and calling the cops.

It was a perfect illustration of how everyone racially profiles to some extent. Civilians, like Zimmerman and the people in the bike theft video, judge individuals based almost entirely on race. Like the New York City police, they may chalk it up to suspicious clothing or other reasons. And as the statistics on drug-related crimes indicates, law enforcement and the judicial system are likely to judge blacks much more harshly than whites.

Racial profiling in the justice system is an ongoing civil rights and moral problem, and the Zimmerman trial is a necessary part of the discussion. Despite the verdict, at least the trial happened. At least people are talking. The most dangerous thing we as a public can do is ignore it.