One of the most popular liberal reactions to the finding that George Zimmerman was not guilty is to posit the question of how the case would have been treated differently if Trayvon Martin were white.

The question always is answered by the author that the shooting of a white person by a non-white person is treated more seriously by the police and the criminal justice system.  This, the argument goes, makes the Zimmerman case all about race.

Law professor and blogger Paul Campos makes this argument at, Zimmerman saga was all about race:

Because it happened in America, the trial of George Zimmerman for shooting and killing Trayvon Martin was all about race. And because it happened in America, the people who benefit politically from the same invidious forces that led both to Trayvon Martin’s killing, and the acquittal of his killer, will deny that race had anything to do with either the killing or the verdict.

Suppose Trayvon Martin had been a 230-pound 30-year-old black man, with a loaded gun in his jacket. Suppose Zimmerman had been a 150-pound 17-year-old white kid, who was doing nothing more threatening than walking back from a convenience store to his father’s condo….

How do you suppose the big scary black man’s claim of “self-defense” would have gone over with a jury made up almost entirely of white women? …

Trayvon Martin was stalked by George Zimmerman because he was black. Trayvon Martin is dead because he was black. George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin because the boy Zimmerman killed was black.

If you deny these things, you are either a liar or an idiot, or possibly both.

Variations of this argument are commonplace.

Putting aside the factual incorrectness of the argument that Zimmerman was motivated by race, the argument is fallacious for several reasons:

First, the argument is not an argument that the jury was wrong under the law.  Indeed, later in his post Campos admits the jury was correct under Florida law:

Nothing above requires the conclusion that the jury’s verdict was wrong as a matter of law. Florida’s laws, in their majestic equality, extend to people of all races the right to engage in vigilante killing that eliminates the sole witness to that killing.  To point this out is neither a defense of those laws, nor a claim that they will in fact be applied equally.  In other words, to blame this jury in this situation is to miss the point. 

But if the jury were correct under the law, how can the case be about race since the law is race neutral?  The argument defeats itself.

Second, assuming that a white victim / black perpetrator would more like result in a guilty finding tells you nothing about this individual case.  Averaged statistics don’t control individual cases, any more than the average temperature in July tells you what the temperature was on a given day at a given time.  The argument as to conviction rates says nothing about George Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense and the involvement of race in this case.

Third, the argument is used to justify a conclusion that is a non-sequitur, that we need to do away with “stand your ground” laws.  Put aside the fact that this was a traditional self-defense case, not a “stand your ground” case (which would have turned on whether Zimmerman had a duty to retreat).   Assuming differing conviction rates simply means we need to do a better job ensuring that black victims are able to invoke self-defense and “stand your ground” principles, not that we need to take those principles away from white crime victims.  The conclusion (diminish the self-defense rights of white victims) does not follow from the argument.

I will concede that there is one aspect of the case that is all about race, but it has nothing to do with the facts or law of the shooting. 

There are many people who cannot admit that their pre-conceived notions about the facts and the law were incorrect, so they desperately want to talk about race to absolve themselves of the embarrassment of their own failings, and to achieve political gains logically unconnected to anything George Zimmerman or the jury did in this case.


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