Zimmerman Trial: The Role of Race

August 1, 2013

In small groups and in a fishbowl discussion, students consider how race affected the trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. 

To the Teacher 

On February 26, 2012, a 17-year-old African-American young man named Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman. That much people can agree on. What happened beyond those basic facts has been controversial at most on every level.  

The case went to trial on June 10, 2013, in Sanford, Florida.  A month later, Zimmerman was acquitted on charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter.  On July 13, he walked out of the courtroom a free man.  The jury, made up of six women (five white and one Latina), needed to base its verdict on the laws that applied to the case; a case presented to them by the prosecution (the State) and George Zimmerman's defense team.  Very different versions and interpretations of the events of that night were presented.  The racial context of the incident that night was mostly left out of these presentations According to Lisa Bloom in the New York Times, "in the courtroom, race was a topic carefully controlled by the judge and handled awkwardly by the prosecution team."

In this lesson, students will look at the case more closely and examine how race affected the case.  

Please also see our activity based on President Obama's speech in the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial, which addressed racial issues.

Thanks to JInnie Spiegler for assistance with this lesson.





Learning Objectives

  • Students will learn the definition of racism
  • Students will explore different points of view about the George Zimmerman verdict and the role race played in the outcome
  • Students will be able to articulate their own point of view about the context of race, racism, and profiling in the George Zimmerman verdict.



Ask students to share how they felt when they heard the verdict in the George Zimmerman case about the death of Trayvon Martin.  Write their words on the board.    

Defining Racism

Ask students to come up with a definition of racism.  Elicit and explain that racism is: 

  • the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races. 
  • prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior

(from the Oxford Dictionaries)

Ask: Has anyone heard anything about what race and racism have to do with the George Zimmerman verdict?

Different Points of View—Reading Activity

Divide the class in half.  Give half the students Article #1 ("Trayvon Martin's Story Lost: Our View," from USA Today) and other half Article #2 ("Trayvon Martin Wasn't a Case of Racial Profiling," from CNN). Both articles are below. Give students 15 minutes to read the articles and to discuss the debriefing questions that follow each reading.  Afterwards, reconvene the whole class and ask students from each group to respond to these questions about their article.

  • What is the main point being made in the article?
  • What evidence does the author use to support that point of view?


Fish bowl

Set up eight chairs in a circle at the center of the classroom.  Arrange the rest of the chairs in a larger circle surrounding the inner circle of chairs.  Invite four students from each of the two groups to sit in the inside circle.  Have the rest of the students to sit in a larger circle behind the students who read the same article as they did.

Explain that the goal of the fishbowl is to have a dialogue in order to promote understanding.  Explain the difference between debate and dialogue:  with dialogue, one listens to the other side(s) in order to understand, find meaning and possibly find agreement.  During a debate, one listens to the other side in order to find flaws and to counter its arguments.  

To get the discussion started, ask: What role did race play in the Zimmerman trial?  

Encourage students to use information that was presented to them in the article they read. After about 3-5 minutes of dialogue, open up the fishbowl to those on the outside in the following way:  students in the outside circle can tap one of the students from their group on the inside circle on the shoulder, indicating that they'd like to take their place.  The students switch seats, giving those on the outside opportunities to join the dialogue.  

Keep the dialogue going while interest is high and dialogue is productive, refocusing the discussion as needed. 

Bring the whole class back together and facilitate a discussion by asking:

  • Did you learn any new information by reading these articles and by hearing other people's points of view?
  • Has your opinion changed and if so, how?
  • Based on what you read and heard, how did race impact what happened on the night of February 26?
  • Did race affect the verdict, and if so, how?


Considering President Obama's Remarks

On July 19, almost a week after the verdict, President Obama commented on the Zimmerman case by saying:  "Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago."  

The President talked about what it is like to be a young man of color in this country today by sharing his experience:

There are very few African American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.


• What do you think about what the President shared?

• How does it relate to what we've been talking about today?


Ask students to share how they feel about the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial having read and discussed the different readings today.   Ask them to also explain why.



ARTICLE #1 - USA Today 

Trayvon Martin's Story Lost: Our View

July 14, the Editorial Board


For many who closely followed the trial of George Zimmerman, the verdict of not guilty spurred fury, heartache and, by Sunday, protests across the country. But the outcome should not have come as a surprise. Zimmerman's attorneys managed to undermine the prosecution's narrative that their client was the aggressor who followed Trayvon Martin and killed him with no justification. And the prosecution — which had the burden of proof — was unable to effectively refute Zimmerman's story of self-defense.

But somewhere between Martin's death 17 months ago in a gated community near Orlando and Saturday night's verdict, the story line that matters the most largely got lost. It's a tragically familiar tale of snap judgments by strangers, racial profiling and a black teenager's needless death. And it's the reason the trial attracted national attention and gavel-to-gavel coverage in the first place.

The verdict deserves to be respected and, as President Obama said Sunday, it should also serve as a reason for calm reflection.

Zimmerman's successful defense depended on getting jurors to focus on the fight that occurred just before he shot the 17-year-old, unarmed Martin, and not on the events that preceded it. The lawyers established doubt about which man screamed for help, as well as other details of the confrontation — holes that invited an acquittal under Florida's laws.

But the fact remains that Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer and cop wanna-be, instantly identified Martin as a "(expletive) punk" who "looks like he's up to no good." The fact remains that Martin was doing nothing wrong; he was returning from a snack run at a convenience store, heading for the house of his father's girlfriend. And the fact remains that had Zimmerman stayed in his truck, as advised by the police, Martin would be alive today.

Those facts — and the authorities' initial failure to charge Zimmerman — inflamed the black community. African Americans saw the case in a way that the jury of six women, five of them white and the other of uncertain ethnicity, probably couldn't. Despite all the nation's progress in burying its racist past, minorities are commonly stopped by authorities — or viewed by strangers as "up to no good" — for no other reason than the color of their skin.

Consider New York City's "stop and frisk" policy, which allows officers to search anyone they see as suspicious: In 2011, 87% of those stopped were minorities. Or the shooting of three black men who did nothing more than venture into a white New Orleans community days after Hurricane Katrina. Or try to find an African-American man who hasn't been stopped for "driving while black" or eyed suspiciously in a department store.

The Justice Department said Sunday it will weigh criminal civil rights charges against Zimmerman, as urged by the NAACP and others. That course would be satisfying on one level, presumably addressing the actions that led to the fight. But it's no slam dunk. It raises fairness issues, and the case is too narrow to serve as an instrument for righting the racial inequities of the justice system, so long in need of attention.

Zimmerman's fate was determined as it should have been, based on the evidence in a court of law, not the court of public opinion. But just because a verdict is legally justified doesn't make it morally satisfying. Trayvon Martin's death remains an avoidable American tragedy — one that Zimmerman set in motion.


Debrief questions:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about what you just read?
  • Was there any information in this article that you hadn't heard about the case before?  If so, what?
  • According to the article why should we not be surprised about the not-guilty verdict?
  • According to the article what is the story line that matters most?  Why? 
  • What happened for it to get lost?
  • What does the article say about the American legal system?
  • According to the article how did race impact what happened the night of February 26?



Trayvon Martin Wasn't a Case of Racial Profiling

May 30, Mark NeJame


Ever since the Trayvon Martin case came to national attention, George Zimmerman has been described by some as having racially profiled the 17-year-old before he was shot and killed.

There's a difference of opinion about whether racial profiling was actually involved, but a key question that is often overlooked is the distinction between profiling by a citizen and profiling by a member of law enforcement. That distinction is likely to be crucial in determining the direction the case may go.

As a criminal defense attorney for more than 30 years, I can't even begin to recall how many cases my firm has handled that involved challenging law enforcement officers for the practice of stopping or searching an individual based on what is typically referred to as racial profiling.

Essentially, racial profiling occurs when race, national origin or ethnicity is the primary or sole consideration used by an officer of the law when intervening in a law enforcement capacity. Racial profiling is a form of discrimination that is not only despicable, but also is an illegal and improper basis for any police officer to stop, search, arrest or investigate another person.

The issue of racial profiling has been bandied about often in discussions of Martin's shooting. As with many things concerning the case, much misinformation has circulated.

Zimmerman was not a law enforcement agent. He was a civilian, operating under different legal standards than those applied to the police. Merely because he was a neighborhood watch captain does not attach law enforcement status to him.

It has been reported that he acquired a concealed weapon permit, which legally allowed him to conceal the gun that was used to shoot and kill Martin.

Hence, although Zimmerman was possibly negligent, irresponsible and exercised poor judgment, it was not illegal for him to follow Martin, carry a gun when doing so or even ignore the opinion of the civilian 911 dispatcher when advised, regarding his following Martin, "OK, we don't need you to do that."

The only legal relevance as to whether race was the determining factor in the following and killing of Martin was whether it goes to establish if Zimmerman exercised a "depraved mind" regarding the killing.

This requisite depravity is a necessary element for second-degree murder in Florida, the crime for which Zimmerman has been charged. If racism or bigotry can be established as the basis for killing Martin, then a second-degree murder charge could be appropriate.

However, with the evidence that has emerged, especially that contained within the discovery documents released in recent days, proof of a racial motive concerning the shooting seems wholly lacking.

Even if a racial aspect was among the factors that led Zimmerman to be suspicious of Martin and follow him, the law regarding what a civilian may do when following another person was not necessarily broken.

Is it racial profiling for a black man to avoid going into a biker bar at night in a small rural town? Is it racial profiling for a white person to refuse to take a stroll through housing projects in a large urban city at midnight?. The biker bar and the projects both undoubtedly are filled with people who are racially colorblind, but most would assume that some might not be. Is it racial profiling or life's cumulative experiences and knowledge or simply common sense that would cause one to formulate an opinion?

A civilian standard of profiling is much different legally than that applied to a law enforcement officer. A civilian, as offensive as it may be, is allowed to personally act on biases or prejudices, whereas a law enforcement officer is prohibited from doing so.

From the first press reports, I believed the shooting was racially motivated. If so, life in prison would be wholly appropriate as a punishment upon conviction. However, research, investigation and learning the facts caused me to reverse this earlier opinion.

The apparent absence of reported previous acts of bigotry, the statements from family and friends indicating Zimmerman wasn't prejudiced, being raised in a multiracial family and having many ethnically diverse friends (which standing alone would be irrelevant but relevant to me when taken in totality with these other indicators), his mentoring of two black youth over a couple of years at his own expense and doing so without fanfare or attention and a review of prior calls and the 911 call indicating race wasn't the basis of the call are some of the reasons for reassessing my original opinion.

Moreover, documents released in the case indicate Zimmerman had previously expressed concern and was critical of the Sanford, Florida, police for the way they treated a case involving the beating of a homeless black man when they didn't arrest the white defendant immediately. (A lawyer in my firm represented the defendant in that case, who was the son of a Sanford police officer.)

There is a question about whether George Zimmerman primarily called the police to report suspicious activity of young black men. If true, this is quite troubling. But before its relevance could be fully determined, an analysis would need to be made of each call to determine the ratio of calls made relative to blacks, whites and Hispanics, whether other strangers who weren't black were ever seen in the complex and not called on and whether unknown black men were ever seen in the complex and the police not called. It would also be relevant to determine whether the race of the suspects in the rash of burglaries that had previously occurred in the complex were ever identified. Too much speculation has surrounded this tragedy and I think it important to fully evaluate such matters before conclusions are reached.

Barring new facts or possibly a more detailed analysis of Zimmerman's previous calls, there doesn't appear to be any evidence or support for the supposition that bigotry or prejudice played a role in Zimmerman's shooting of Martin

This doesn't mean Martin had to die. Would Zimmerman have been so bold if he wasn't carrying a gun? Likely not, and I've argued before that gun laws need to be reviewed in light of this case. This was the inevitable deadly consequence when an altercation occurred and a gun was legally allowed to be in a public place.

Without establishing that the killing was racially motivated, any claim that Zimmerman committed second-degree murder in shooting Martin will not survive. Interestingly, the state in its charging affidavit simply claimed Zimmerman "profiled" Martin, not that he racially profiled him.

This allows the state to keep such a claim open-ended, likely knowing early on that it couldn't sustain the burden of proving racial profiling. More and more, this case looks like it will be thrown out in criminal court and eventually be headed to civil court.

Debrief questions:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about what you just read?
  • Was there any information in this article that you hadn't heard about the case before?  If so what?
  • What does the article say about civilians acting on personal bias and prejudices?
  • According to the article what is the only legal relevance as to whether race was the determining factor in the following and killing of Martin?
  • What does the article say about Zimmerman's prejudice?  
  • What does the article say is the reason for Martin's death?