Zimmerman Trial: Nation in Another Awkward Dance With Racial Issues

By Manuel McDonnell Smith

UPDATE: On Saturday, July 13, the jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of all charges.

After another Independence Day weekend meant to celebrate the birth of our nation’s freedoms and our commonalities as Americans, many of us headed back to racially defined sides over a tragic case. But are people focused on the facts of the George Zimmerman trialor on the racial overtones that have defined the case

Avoiding the Obvious

At the outset of the trial, Seminole County Judge Debra Nelson severely limited the use of racially inflammatory terminology in the opening statements by lawyers for both sides, including a ban on the term “racial profiling,” declaring that “opening statements are not evidence” in response to arguments for and against use of the terms on both sides.

While the judge hoped that the restriction on language could clarify the issues in the courtroom, it remained a flashpoint in the eyes of the public, which just completed months of national debate and protests, many fronted by African-American leaders, that preceded the arrest of George Zimmerman.

A Witness’ Words

As lawyers tried to perform a tenuous tango around racially charged language, one of the first witnesses, Rachel Jeantel, pushed racial tensions right back to center stage. Using universally offensive terms including “cracker” and the “N-word” during her testimony, she offered only a curt “No” when Zimmerman attorney Mark O’Mara asked if she thought her use of the terms was racist, flaming debate over use of the words.

Even more shocking than her testimony was the vigorous debate that exploded over Jeantel herself. Before she left the stand, crude comments referencing her weight, tone and diction soared across social media. Responses to those comments, which were widely viewed as racial in context, came not only online but also in traditional media, moving the conversation from Jeantel’s testimony to racial tensions and raising pressures even further.

Judging the Jury

As vigorous debate continues outside the courtroom, the sequestered jury remains focused on the facts of the trial. But despite the panel being approved by both legal teams, considerable debate has been made over the race and gender makeup of the jurypublicly described as five white women and one minority juror (their identities are under seal as they remain sequestered). With one columnist calling the jury “homogenous and dangerous,” some are asking if it will be able to come to a fair decision given the strong racial under- and overtones of the case.

In a press conference, O’Mara defined his choices for the jury as “race neutral,” while Martin family attorney Ben Crump expressed satisfaction but reservation in the panel, saying, “With the makeup of this jury, the issue of whether every American can get equal justice no matter who serves on this jury panel will be answered. And we expect the jury pool to do its duty and follow the law.”

Praying for Peace

Regardless of the verdict that the jury will deliver, it’s likely that considerable reaction will be felt in the public diaspora. Fear of what that reaction will be, and how those feelings will play out, is now becoming a concern as the trial comes to a close.

Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith and other community leaders in South Florida have expressed fears of violence if a not-guilty verdict is reached, with several communities, including Miami, said to be preparing extensive plans in an effort to avoid a repeat of the rampaging in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict in 1992. In a positive development, multicultural leaders are coming together to urge conversation and understanding among the community before the verdict is even reached. “We want peace for Trayvon,” said Miami-Dade Community Relations Board member Dr. Walter T. Richardson, according to CBS Miami, which also reported that members of the NBA champion Miami Heat are also being asked to join the call for nonviolence.

How to Prepare

Racial tensions surrounding the case are likely to remain at the forefront of conversation. Engaging DiversityInc readers early on, CEO Luke Visconti said that the lessons for business leaders are clear. “History matters,” he wrote, reminding businesses that”a trajectory of good practices” is essential to positive communication with customers, employees and shareholders. In the same article, Visconti also spoke of social media, explaining, “The kind of pressure that took years to create during the civil-rights era now takes days. What I’ve observed is that furtive and hateful things burrow underground, while the opposite struggles for sunlight.”

Readers interested in resources to help elevate the conversation can find a wealth of content and advice here on this site, with web seminars and additional articles on diversity and inclusion available to subscribers of BestPractices.DiversityInc.com.

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