The long overdue, productive conversation about race and justice in America, now sputtering to a start, is going to stall if we continue bickering over the acquittal of George Zimmerman.
That quarrel is now pointless. Pointless because the jury has spoken. Pointless because the Justice Department has no grounds to pursue federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman and is merely waiting for passions to cool before saying so. And pointless because the effort to change a few minds on a few fine points generates way more heat than light.
For nearly a week we've been stuck in a "No, and ..." debate:
No, Zimmerman's use of deadly force in self-defense was not justified, and Trayvon Martin did nothing to deserve being shot.
No, Martin chose to attack Zimmerman rather than continue to walk home, and Zimmerman legitimately feared for his life as the fight went on.
Now it's time to transition to a "Yes, but ..." discussion:
Yes, we'll never know for sure what happened along that dark walkway where Zimmerman and Martin encountered one another and the fatal fight began, but no amount of speculation and accusation will ever change that.
Yes, Zimmerman benefited, perhaps greatly, from the requirement that the jury find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but this heavy burden on the prosecution is a feature of our justice system, not a bug.
Yes, it was beyond horrible that an African-American teenager merely walking home from the convenience store was mistakenly profiled as a criminal and ended up shot to death, but it was a freakish tragedy, not part of an ominous pattern of gun-toting neighborhood watch volunteers sallying into fatal confrontations with unarmed youths.
"No, and ..." debates emphasize and inflame disagreements. "Yes, but ..." conversations look for points of at least grudging accord from which we can hope to address legitimate grievances.
Yes, Zimmerman might have been found guilty if he'd been African-American, but that's an argument for making sure black defendants get the same benefit of the doubt and strong defense in front of a skeptical, impartial jury that Zimmerman got, not an argument for lowering our standards of justice.
Yes, Florida's "stand your ground" law seems designed to exacerbate rather than mitigate heated confrontations, may have helped create the climate that allowed this misunderstanding to get out of hand and should be carefully reviewed by lawmakers, but Zimmerman's defense team never invoked stand your ground and indeed argued that Zimmerman never had a chance to retreat once Martin attacked him.
Yes, those defending the jury's decision to acquit Zimmerman are failing to consider the historical context of discrimination and racism that turned this case into a cause celebre in the first place, but a criminal trial is not the venue to litigate society's broader failings.
Yes, many of those expressing outrage at the verdict have plenty to be outraged about — a U.S. Sentencing Commission report submitted to Congress this year found that black men get nearly 20 percent longer prison sentences than white men for similar crimes; an American Bar Association analysis found that blacks use illegal drugs at the same rate as whites, but are nearly four times more likely to be imprisoned on drug charges — but a guilty verdict for Zimmerman wouldn't have changed any of them.
Yes, Zimmerman had become a symbol for oafish racism and convicting him would have marked a symbolic victory in the struggle for justice, but the ugliest chapters in the history of our courts have been written when we've turned defendants into symbols and convicted them to satisfy the angry masses.
Yes, the fact that Zimmerman may have gotten away with manslaughter makes it hard to declare that the system worked, but the system did work. The system demands proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and through no fault of police or prosecutors, such proof simply was not there in this case.
Yes, the system often doesn't work with such scrupulous attention to fairness for impoverished and/or minority defendants who rely on overworked public defenders and not the sorts of high-powered volunteer attorneys who represented Zimmerman, but yet another wrong wouldn't have made those past injustices any more right.
Yes, black people are unfairly profiled every day and far too often feel the threats and insults of racism, but nothing about the Zimmerman verdict makes discrimination or violence any more acceptable or likely today.
Yes, the story is vexing and sad, but it will only remain polarizing as long as we keep looking back at it instead of looking ahead.
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