Sometimes, the worst mistake is to not listen.
George Zimmerman did not listen to the police dispatcher who told him to stay back from Trayvon Martin. Why not? Maybe he was angry and fed up. Maybe he was too busy talking. Maybe he didn’t like what he heard. Maybe he didn’t trust that the police would keep their word. We don’t know why he didn’t listen, but we know that his failure to listen led to a tragedy that could have been avoided.
Our society risks making the same mistake in the aftermath of the verdict in the Zimmerman case.
Some people are protesting, claiming that justice was not served. They are angry and fed up with a society that perpetuates racial stereotypes. They perceive a criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates young black males while letting white financial criminals go free. They do not trust that the police and the government are doing enough to protect the equal rights of all Americans.
Other people claim that our justice system worked perfectly because a wrongly accused man was not found guilty of a crime he did not commit. They are angry and fed up with living in fear of criminals. They feel George Zimmerman did exactly the right thing. They do not trust that the police and the government are doing enough to protect law-biding citizens.
The truth is that, in their own minds, both sets of people are right. Each can use the Zimmerman case to argue their position more strongly. Or, they can listen to each other and reassess their perceptions. They may not like what they hear, but not listening will only make it worse. Talking only to people who agree with you is comforting and easy, but it reinforces stereotypes and drives us farther apart.
Prejudice arises from ignorance. We fear things that are unfamiliar to us. Last week, President Obama spoke about the perspective of an African-American male in 21st century America. He didn’t propose new legislation; he didn’t cast blame. He simply tried to sensitize people to the reality of what life is like for a large segment of our population. It was a valuable start to an important discussion.
As any advocate knows, the most persuasive arguments evolve from understanding and directly addressing the arguments on the other side. In the public debate about race in America, that understanding can only come from talking about difficult and painful issues, and listening with empathy and an open mind.
After a year of press coverage and a month of trial, we don’t know for certain what happened that night in Sanford, Florida. We never will. It doesn’t really matter. George Zimmerman being convicted was not going to make America a more egalitarian, less racially divided country. George Zimmerman being acquitted should not make us a less egalitarian, more racially divided country. Trayvon Martin will not have died in vain if we use this incident to motivate a productive discussion about race in our country. And when that discussion starts, let’s all listen to each other.
The author, Bruce Reinhart, is a former federal prosecutor and currently a criminal defense attorney at the West Palm Beach, Florida firm of McDonald Hopkins.