What Juror B37's Comments Reveal About White Womanhood
On Monday night, Juror B37 broke the silence of the jury in the trial of George Zimmerman and spoke anonymously to Anderson Cooper about her thoughts and reflections on the trial. If anyone was still clinging to the blind assertion that race played no part in this trial, Juror B37 eviscerated that assumption. Watch key clips below:
To be clear, no one can understand the inner workings of Juror B37's mind, or what her intentions were. And yet, Juror B37 words reflected more sympathy and compassion for the oppressor than the oppressed, she helped peel back the layers of both unconscious and overt racism that underwrote the killing of Trayvon Martin, the trial of his killer George Zimmerman, and the ultimate verdict of not guilty. A jury comprised entirely of women, five of whom were white, sent Zimmerman free. And though many are horrified, we should not be surprised.
Juror B37 seems to have a sort of sympathy for George Zimmerman, and her rhetoric is telling. “I think he was frustrated with the whole situation in the neighborhood, with the break-ins and the robberies ... I think just circumstances caused George to think that he might be a robber, or trying to do something bad in the neighborhood because of all that had gone on previously.” Note that she calls the defendant by his first name. Perhaps it was unintentional, as she calls Trayvon Martin by his first name as well. But the choice to use the defendant in a murder trial's first name reflects a construction of George Zimmerman as the protector of white women and of white, civilized decency. Rhetorically, "George" is the hero. "Zimmerman" is the defendant in a murder trial.
What’s more, the juror infers that Zimmerman’s assumption that Trayvon Martin was a “robber” or another kind of criminal is almost understandable and seemingly justifiable. Juror B37's rhetoric reflects the predominant American assumption that young black men like Trayvon Martin are criminals who are terrorizing and destroying decent (in other words, white) neighborhoods. In her eyes, George Zimmerman was right to assume that Trayvon Martin was a criminal because to Juror B37, Trayvon Martin probably already was.
This line of thinking, that George Zimmerman was protecting the neighborhood and notably, white women, from a potential criminal, was a crucial aspect of the defense team's argument. Over at The Nation, Mychal Denzel Smith cogently dissected Defense Attorney Mark O’Mara’s use of George Zimmerman’s white female neighbor, Olivia Bertalan, as a prop in the racist construction of Trayvon Martin as a criminal threat to white women’s safety.
According to Smith, “O’Mara presented the jury with the ‘perfect victim,’ which Trayvon could never be: a white woman living in fear of black criminals.” The best way to convince a mostly white, female jury that George Zimmerman was innocent was to criminalize Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman was never on trial; black masculinity was.
This kind of racist paternalism, the idea that women need to be protected from violent black men, underwrote much of this trial and was reflected in Juror B37’s deeply troubling words. Juror B37's comments reflect Defense Attorney Mark O’Mara’s racist bait that Trayvon Martin was an inherently suspicious, criminal, and perhaps violent character, simply because he was black, and that white women like her and defense Olivia Bertalan were better off because Zimmerman did what needed to be done to protect them.
Never mind that George Zimmerman is the one with a history of domestic violence, who was charged with assaulting a police officer, who has been charged with felonies and misdemeanors multiple times. In that altercation, Juror B37's word reflect a construction of George Zimmerman as the “protector” of white womanhood. George Zimmerman seemingly racially profiled, shot, and killed a young black teenager, and Juror B37 seemingly saw nothing wrong with that because white women continue to internalize, normalize, and implicitly perpetuate the myth of black aggressive masculinity.
“Defending white womanhood” has long been a racist ploy to demonize and criminalize black men. Black men have been perceived as inherently violent and overly sexually aggressive for centuries. The stereotype of the brute black man, terrorizing white women and respectable communities, has been used to demonize and criminalize black men since the dawn of this white supremacist nation. The Scottsboro Boys. Ronald Cotton. Brian Banks. Emmett Till. The list of black men falsely accused or killed for violating the norms of decency against white women is as long as it is tragic, and it is not a problem solely of the past.
As feminist writer Jessica Valenti noted, “white women — all of us — are taught to fear men of color,” and she’s right. Whether explicit or implicit, white women learn to cling their purses close to their body, to walk a little faster down the street, or to lock their car doors when in the presence of men of color, namely black men. This is a kind of daily racism in which all white women participate, whether consciously or not, because we so often allow it to go unchecked, even in ourselves. We cling to the racist notion that black men rape white women with impunity, when in reality, 90% of rapes occur between people of the same race and economic class.
We white women all too often refuse to examine our own racism, content that because we would never say the “n-word,” we aren’t racist. This lie we tell ourselves, that we aren’t racist, that we don’t contribute to racism, that we aren’t complacent in racism, does nothing to end the senseless and continuous killing of black men and the criminalization of blackness in America.
So while Juror B37's words were insidiously hurtful, they were also compellingly revelatory. This trial, this verdict, this killing, was always about race. With black men in America, it always is.