In two Americas, one white, the other black, Dave Muth and Angelo Henderson have entirely different views on a Florida jury’s verdict that found George Zimmerman not guilty in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin.
Their deep racial divide is in lock step with public opinion polls released during the past week showing that African Americans overwhelmingly disagreed with the verdict, compared with a narrow majority of white Americans who agreed with it.
One poll also showed a stark difference of opinion in the role of race in the case, which exploded into the public consciousness last year when Zimmerman, then a 27-year-old armed neighborhood watch volunteer for his gated community, confronted and killed Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old who was walking back to the home of a family friend after a trip to the store.
Zimmerman’s acquittal of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges by a jury of six women was accepted by Muth, who is white, and rejected by Henderson, who is black, reflecting a wider racial rift.
Even the jurors were split in their views of whether justice was served. On Thursday, the lone minority on the panel, a Puerto Rican woman, said in a television interview that Zimmerman “got away with murder,” but based on Florida law she had no choice but to vote for his acquittal. Earlier, a white juror said in a television interview that she accepted Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense and that he was justified in shooting Martin.
Since the verdict, Martin’s parents and activists have held rallies around the country urging the Justice Department to consider federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman and calling for reforms to gun laws such as “stand your ground” that jurors and legal experts say played a role in Zimmerman’s acquittal.
Henderson, a Detroit radio news talk show host, was clear on why his opinions about the case track with those of many African Americans. He thought that Martin was profiled by Zimmerman because of his skin color, a perspective that he said is informed by experience. When he was 15, Henderson said, police in Los Angeles detained him because he was wearing the same color shirt as a black man suspected in a purse snatching. The officers handcuffed him and pushed him in the back seat of a patrol car.
“My heart was racing. I was as nervous as can be,” Henderson said, recalling that day in the late 1970s. Had his white friend’s mother not come running out of an office shouting, “He didn’t do it,” Henderson said, “who knows what would’ve happened.”
“I think about how many brothers have been in the back seat of that car and there was nobody who could come,” Henderson said.
Muth, 56, a retired airline industry worker living in the Tampa Bay area, was just as clear on why his opinions track with those of many white people. The Retreat at Twin Lakes, the gated community where the shooting occurred on Feb. 26, 2012, had recently experienced several burglaries and, according to Zimmerman’s accounts, Martin, who was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, was “acting suspicious.” Muth said it is not surprising that the teenager caught Zimmerman’s attention.
There is no way of knowing who approached whom and initiated the confrontation that led to Martin’s death, Muth said, citing indecisive reports. Still, Muth, a gun advocate, believed Zimmerman had a right to be armed.
He also believes thatblack people are profiled, sometimes unfairly, but there’s a reason for it. “I think there’s a stereotype, and some people feed the stereotype, like hip-hop culture. There is a bias, prejudice or profiling that comes from experience.” Muth added: “There’s a perception that young black men are disrespectful of authority.”
Henderson’s and Muth’s views align with social research on racial attitudes toward the criminal justice system that has been collected for decades.
“It is not at all surprising that Blacks and Whites have such different interpretations of the Zimmerman verdict,” said political scientists Jon Hurwitz and Mark Peffley, whose book, “Justice in America: The Separate Realities of Blacks and Whites,” focuses on disparate racial perspectives on the criminal justice system.
“Our research, as well as the research of many others, has shown that African Americans are quite aware of, and familiar with, racial biases in the system, and the large majority of criminology studies have found these biases to be real in many respects,” said the authors, who answered questions in tandem by e-mail.
When Hurwitz and Peffley asked why African Americans are more often arrested and imprisoned than white people, black respondents tended to focus on bias within the system itself.