NPR's Race Expert: Whether Zimmerman Fired in Self-Defense Is a 'Really, Really Small Technical Point'

July 14th, 2013 7:38 AM

On Friday’s Morning Edition, NPR “Code Switch” blogger Gene Demby (exploring the "frontiers of race, culture, and ethnicity") was brought on to discuss the Zimmerman trial. For his blog at,  he had written that trials like this are “lousy proxies for fights over big, messy social issues” like racial profiling.

But in making this point, Demby highlighted his point unintentionally. He declared that the legal proceedings in the courtroom were focused on “really, really small technical points” like who attacked whom in the Zimmerman-Martin fight and who was acting in self-defense:

DAVID GREENE, guest host: All the while then we get the actual case that begins in the courtroom, which doesn't involve a lot of these [larger political] conversations. It's almost, there's a total disconnect there.

GENE DEMBY: Yeah. The case itself in the courtroom is, like, hermetically sealed from these larger conversations. I mean, jurors are being asked to decide a very, very particular legal question, which is to decide whether or not George Zimmerman acted in self-defense. They're being charged with a superhuman task of kind of tuning out all the other discussion, all the other noise around this trial in order to decide that. So, there are so many ways that people who are following this trial very closely might be very disappointed with the outcome, in part because criminal trials are just very bad venues for us to resolve these larger, messy social issues.

GREENE: Why are they bad venues to solve some of these social issues?

DEMBY: Because the juries are asked to decide on really, really small technical points, right? Did Trayvon Martin attack George Zimmerman? Did George Zimmerman attack Trayvon Martin? And none of those things necessarily have any bearing on any of the larger conversations, right? I mean, it's possible that George Zimmerman did racially profile Trayvon Martin and did shoot him in self-defense, right? Those things can both be true. And that's why these things don't really solve any questions, right? They just complicate our conversation.

Trials “complicate our conversation,” because they might establish who can credibly accused of self-defense? When Al Sharpton gins up a fight and loses, did he merely "complicate our conversation"? Sharpton and other racial ambulance-chasers were not explicitly discussed. But when you scream about "justice for Trayvon," it's going to be resolved in a "complicated" courtroom.

In his blog, Demby was skeptical about how this would end: “none of these outcomes are likely to resolve much of anything.” He did not say it was a mistake for black leftists to trump up charges against Zimmerman that wouldn’t convince a jury. Demby began his segment with Greene by suggesting Zimmerman was part of a proxy fight over racial profiling:

DAVID GREENE: You had people in the country beginning to form their opinions about this case well before an actual trial started. What have you reflected on as you've watched this other trial out in the public?

GENE DEMBY: So, I was actually covering one of the rallies in New York City last year. And you could have been forgiven if you thought that that rally was actually about stop and frisk, which is New York City's police tactic that gives officers wide discretion to pat down and search people they deem suspicious.

DAVID GREENE: And a lot of minorities in New York say that they are targeted under that program, we should say.

GENE DEMBY: A study came out that found that 90 percent of the people who were stopped were black and Latinos. The issue of racial profiling seems to be central to the way people are reading the Trayvon Martin case.

DAVID GREENE: So it almost became a proxy war. I mean, this debate over racial profiling in New York, people were using the Trayvon Martin case to kind of get out there and talk about it.

GENE DEMBY: Right, absolutely.

Demby said it also became a cause for gun-control lobbyists to assail Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law.