It’s the System, Stupid!

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As people react to the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, we need to keep in mind that the trial itself is only a small part of our legal system. If anything is to change, we need to look at the larger systems instead of focusing solely on the details.

As a family psychologist, I have been trained to look at the big picture. This is often difficult because, although human beings are profoundly affected by the systems that surround us, we tend to focus more on the details than the dynamics. Thus, when couples or families come in, they want to resolve the most recent conflict instead of working on their overall pattern of interacting. This means that I often hear, “Tell her about the fight we had this morning” instead of “We tend to get defensive with each other.” It is tempting to get sucked down the path of fixing the recent argument, but that means settling the battle instead of solving the war. In other words, focusing solely on the details is a losing strategy because nothing will change. Sure, today’s argument may be over but they’ll have another one tomorrow. And that seems to be exactly what is occurring with the Trayvon Martin case.

Like many other people, I have been deeply distressed by the Not Guilty verdict in the Zimmerman trial. Justice definitely was not served, and when that happens — all too often it seems — I want to do something to change the outcome. (I’m a big one for fairness — just ask my mom!) However, no Guilty verdict or amount of civil damages will bring Trayvon back to life, so if we want things to change, if we want his tragic death to have meaning, we must look to the larger systems at work in this case.

The big picture in this case involves institutionalized racism and legalized stupidity. First, the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law that supposedly excused George Zimmerman’s actions is, at its core, one that allows racial profiling and encourages gun users to run amok. Such laws were passed to encourage “2nd Amendment solutions” to crime. However, it hasn’t quite worked out the way they hoped. While the overall crime rate has stayed steady, the number of ‘justifiable’ homicides committed by civilians with guns has risen. Thus, all these laws have gotten us is more dead people, and often the dead consist of people of color who, like Trayvon, were doing nothing wrong.

Second, anyone who believes that justice is blind has not been paying attention. The American legal system does not work the way it should for people of color, and we must acknowledge this instead of pretending that it does. Comedian Dave Chappelle did a scathing but hilarious sketch (NB: the broadcaster prevents this video from being viewed by users on IP addresses outside the United States) on what would happen if a white man and a black man — both charged with possession of drugs — changed places within the legal system. Although a bit crude, the sketch made it clear that people of color are not treated fairly in the justice system. And if you look at the entire Martin/Zimmerman situation in perspective, that is exactly what occurred. Everything in this case, from the shoddy police investigation and prosecutorial handling, to the media coverage of it, smacks of differential treatment. Even the use of a six-person jury instead of one consisting of 12 people is problematic, given that research has shown that smaller juries are less likely to contain members of minority groups. And in cases like this, where race definitely played a role, minority representation matters.

As such, from day one, the legal case was stacked against obtaining justice for Trayvon Martin and I think we must agree that battle is lost. But there is a war still to be fought, and instead of focusing on another difficult-to-win trial against George Zimmerman, we must focus our energies on the other battles they want us to ignore. Unless we keep our eyes on the prize — a society where racism and gun violence no longer exist — then those who celebrated this verdict will win and more people of color will die, merely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

If we want to do something about this unjust verdict, we must stop thinking about vengeance, and prepare ourselves for a long, hard fight against a discriminatory infrastructure. The Stand Your Ground laws must be overturned. We must force legislators to give background checks on guns enough teeth, so that people who have a history of domestic violence and resisting arrest — people like George Zimmerman — are not allowed to carry them. We must push for more people of color to work within the justice system, so that racial profiling and discrimination are not the order of the day. And if we truly want to decrease crime, we must stop dealing with it on the back end, and work harder on the front end to prevent it. Communities need to be strengthened, public schools need to be supported, and our economy needs to be improved, so that people have both the training and the opportunity to find work that is fulfilling and pays enough to comfortably support a family.

Granted, all of this will require hard work and a great deal of persistence. And yes, it is simpler to focus on the details of one case. It is more satisfying to ensure that George Zimmerman gets the punishment he deserves. Then we all can feel good about doing our part and go home, while the institutionalized racism that led to this tragedy continues. The racists among us are hoping that the rest of us will find it easier to win the argument we had this morning than it is to address the dynamics that led to the fight, the ones that took a long time to build and will be harder to solve. I, for one, refuse to go down the easy path. Like Robert Frost, I want to take the road less traveled, so that Trayvon Martin’s death means something and the big picture looks bright for everyone. Only then will true justice be achieved.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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