Knock-Knock: Opening a Discussion on Race in the Justice System

Dear Harvard Community,

“I’d like to tell you a little joke.”

The above was one of the opening lines presented by attorney Don West in the defense’s opening statements during the recent George Zimmerman trial. West continued his monologue, “Knock, knock. Who’s there? George Zimmerman. George Zimmerman who? Alright. Good. You’re on the jury.” The joke fell resoundingly flat.

The joke, distasteful as it was, gave us pause and reminded us of a joke delivered by comedian Dave Chappelle in his HBO special “Killin’ Them Softly” back in 2000. In the joke, Chappelle and his white friend Chip are driving together in a car. Chip is drunk and driving recklessly. The two are then pulled over by a police officer and Chappelle is terrified of what is to come, as Chip sits back relaxed. Chappelle incredulously relates what happens next:

“You wanna know what [Chip] said? This was almost exactly what he said. I couldn't believe it. He says, ‘Oh, oh. Sorry officer. I...I didn't know I couldn't do that...’ The cop responds, ‘Well now you know! Just get outta here.’”

Chappelle was quite bewildered by this scenario. Let’s just say that he wasn’t personally used to those kinds of interactions with law enforcement.

This joke points to the tensions present in how different races interact with the legal system in America. It may also help to explain why race was such a prominent element throughout the George Zimmerman case. This initial emphasis on race came in the form of outcry over how leniently Zimmerman was treated by law enforcement in the aftermath of the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

Many were perplexed and angered that Zimmerman was allowed to go free without any charges after merely being questioned and claiming self-defense. This was particularly troubling given the details surrounding the night of Martin’s death. George Zimmerman—a 28-year-old man—pursued, got into an altercation with, and killed an unarmed black minor. He was able to relay this to the police and no charges were placed against him due to his claim of self-defense. It was only after six weeks of extreme media scrutiny and protest, both rife with racial accusations, that Zimmerman was eventually charged with a crime and prosecutors were at least given a chance to mount a case for second-degree murder or second-degree manslaughter. Racial accusations stemmed from the (lack of) initial scrutiny in the initial police investigation. Martin was killed and his offender did not even need to go through litigation. A hope to see that the case at least went to trial became quite divisive, and the discord continued into coverage of the trial.

But given the precedents set by the American justice system, does it make sense that people would jump to such a charged conclusion of racial profiling and racial bias?

Racial bias in our justice system has been well documented, from discriminatory policing, to racial differences in litigations, to heavier sentencing of minority individuals. For example, one need only look at controversial “stop-and-frisk” laws that disproportionately target young black males in New York City. In 2011, black and Latino males between the ages of 14 and 24 made up only 4.7 percent of the city’s population but were involved in more than 41.6 percent of stops. According to the 2011 Stop-and-Frisk Report from the New York Civil Liberties Union, there was a greater number of stop-and-frisks involving young black men than there were young black men actually living in the city. Additionally, a 2012 analysis provided by the New York Public Advocate’s Office showed that a white individual detained for search was substantially more likely to be in possession of a weapon or contraband than a black individual was, despite the disproportionate searches.

We see judicial precedents from cases such as McCleskey v. Kemp, which addressed documented racial bias in death penalty sentencing in Georgia. Defendants charged with killing whites were 4.3 times more likely to receive the death penalty than defendants charged with killing blacks. However, the case ruled that unless conscious racial bias is shown in a particular case, one cannot highlight any implicit bias that might alter the legal outcome. This precedent denies racial minorities who are subject to implicit racial discrimination equal protection under the law. Even if there is systemic discrimination going on within the legal system, individuals must definitively prove they are facing explicit bias in their respective cases for this bias to be taken into account.

This has strong implications specifically for racial biases that we see in Florida’s legal system. A recent Duke University study examines data on conviction rates from 2000-2010. It found that all-white jury pools convict black defendants 16 percent more often than white defendants. We do not know the composition of the jury pool in the Zimmerman trial, but we do know the composition of the jury: five white women and one Hispanic woman. If there were more heterogeneity in the jury, would the outcome have been different? The difficulty of proving racial bias in a particular case presents a dilemma: There is copious evidence of bias in policing and sentencing broadly, but it is quite difficult to prove such bias in a particular case.

It is for reasons such as these, and many others, that people are critical of how blacks are treated by the justice system. When we take these reasons into account, we can better understand the outcry when Zimmerman, an individual who appears white, was simply able to talk his way out of an initial charge involving the murder of a young black male.

Many of us at Harvard, inside and outside the African American community, were both angered and grimly unsurprised by George Zimmerman’s acquittal. Many were plagued with questions. Why was the testimony of key witness Rachel Jeantel discredited and dismissed? Why was the argument that Trayvon may have attempted to defend himself not fully utilized by the prosecution? What does this trial say about race in America? Should this trial say anything about race in America? All notwithstanding, the most glaring question remains: Were Zimmerman’s pursuit and eventual shooting of Trayvon Martin racially motivated?

We may not get answers to these questions, but they must not be brushed aside. President Obama’s recent comments on race and racial injustice in light of the George Zimmerman verdict—the most expansive since his 2008 campaign—poignantly asserted this very claim. Issues of racial injustice in America must be openly discussed and confronted, not swept under the rug because of the discomfort they may cause. It is a profound shame that we will never get to hear Trayvon’s side of the story.

Our hearts, minds, and prayers remain with the parents, friends, and loved ones of Trayvon Martin.

Tope A. Agabalogun ’15 is a human evolutionary biology concentrator in Dunster House. He is executive program director of the Harvard College Black Men’s Forum. Follow him on Twitter @tagabalogun. Rodriguez S. Roberts ’15 is an organismic and evolutionary biology concentrator in Mather House. He is president of the Harvard College Black Men’s Forum. Follow him on Twitter @pop_roberts.

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