A blog by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration about justice and peace issues

7 Ways the Zimmerman Mindset Permeates America’s Criminal Justice System


It’s not just about one man.

George Zimmerman killed one boy, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Although a Florida jury found Zimmerman not guilty, his attitude — that a young African American male is an object of suspicion and contempt — not only cost Martin his life but has infected the entire United States criminal justice system.

Law Professor Michelle Alexander makes this powerful point:

“It is the Zimmerman mindset that must be found guilty – far more than the man himself. It is a mindset that views black men and boys as nothing but a threat, good for nothing, up to no good no matter who they are or what they are doing. It is the Zimmerman mindset that has birthed a penal system unprecedented in world history, and relegated millions to a permanent undercaste.”

These statistics back up Alexander’s point. Minorities, especially the six million young African American men in the United States, suffer much worse outcomes from the criminal justice system for the same conduct:

1. An African American male born in 2001 has a 32 percent chance of spending some portion of his life in prison. A white male born the same year has just a six percent chance. [Sentencing Project]

2. In major American cities, as many as 80 percent of young African American men have criminal records. [Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow]

3. African Americans who use drugs are more than four times as likely to be incarcerated than whites who use drugs. African Americans constitute 14 percent of the population and 14 percent of its monthly drug users. But African Americans represent 34 percent of those arrested for a drug offense and 53 percent of those sentenced to prison for a drug offense. [American Bar Association]

4. In seven states, African Americans constitute 80 percent or more of all drug offenders sent to prison. [Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow]

5. African American students are three and a half times as likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers. One in five African American boys receive an out-of-school suspension. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who commissioned the study, said, “The undeniable truth is that the everyday education experience for too many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise.” [The New York Times]

6. African American youth who are referred to juvenile court are much more likely to be detained, referred to adult court or end up in adult prison than their white counterparts. African Americans represented 28 percent of juvenile arrests, 30 percent of referrals to juvenile court, 37 percent of the detained population, 35 percent of youth judicially waived to criminal court and 58 percent of youth admitted to state adult prison. [National Council on Crime And Delinquency]

7. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its African American population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. [Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow]

In 2004, the American Bar Association created a commission which produced recommendation to address “racial and ethnic bias in the criminal justice system.” Thus far, their recommendations have been largely ignored in much of the country.  [Alexander, Michelle]

In the aftermath of the verdict in the Zimmerman trial, it is more important than ever that we take seriously the systems that ensure communities of color will face a different reality than white communities.

Professor Alexander invites us to examine the intertwined mindsets of white privilege and racism. No one should have to fear that their child will be shot, arrested, expelled, etc. simply because of the color of their skin. Trayvon was perceived as a threat because he was African American and a jury just confirmed that being African American is a big enough threat to a person’s safety to justify murder.

This moment of history brings us to a very important point as white communities – can we stand against another lynching or will we once again find a way to ignore the stark realities (that we benefit from and participate in) that impact communities of color every single day?


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