Judgment Day

Today, about 36 hours after I heard that George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin, I was running -- not sprinting, it is 90-plus degrees here in New York -- to catch a bus. It was sitting at a stop, about half a block ahead of me. The last passenger had boarded, and the driver had closed the doors. By all rights, he could have pulled away from the stop and drove off. Being an experienced mass transit user, I decided to maximize my chances of making the bus by getting myself parallel to it, in the sightline of the driver's side view mirror, and loped toward the doors. I even gave a little wave, hoping to catch his attention. To my good fortune, I saw the doors open up. I clambered aboard and thanked him for waiting. On other similar occasions, I've watched drivers pull away, so I was pretty happy, especially given the heat.

The driver was a young black man. Early twenties, I'd say. He smiled and said, "At first I thought you were just out for a jog." I think he was playing a bit, but I'm not 100 percent sure. Either way, there was genuine warmth in his smile. "But when you waved, I figured you wanted a ride," he added. Then my Metrocard showed an error when I tried to pay, and he laughed and said, "Go on ahead and sit down."

As I did I was in a terrific mood, buoyed both by my success as a commuter and by the pleasant exchange with a generous stranger. Then I thought about Trayvon Martin. I thought about how the bus driver had cut me a break, had treated me like a human being, had not judged me, or thought me hostile to him because I'm white and he's black. That's how we are all supposed to treat each other. I'm supposed to treat you the same way, extend you the same courtesy, hold you to the same standards no matter your color or gender or whatever I can tell about you from your outward appearance. And that's how you are supposed to treat me.

But that's not how George Zimmerman treated Trayvon Martin, how he assessed Trayvon as he watched the young man from his car. Zimmerman simply prejudged him. We know what was going through Zimmerman's mind, what he thought of Trayvon Martin. "F------ punks. These a-------. They always get away."

What made Zimmerman prejudge Martin, what made him decide that Trayvon was suspicious? The fact is, there was absolutely nothing suspicious about what Trayvon Martin was doing that night as he walked home. Nothing. There was no legitimate reason for George Zimmerman to be suspicious of him. Nothing at all.

Other than one thing.

Zimmerman was suspicious because Trayvon Martin was a black teenager. Young, black, male. What else about his appearance was suspicious? That he was not wearing a suit and tie? Martin was doing nothing wrong, and had as much right to be there in that neighborhood as Zimmerman, its erstwhile "watchman." Zimmerman determined he was suspicious and followed him. Had that not happened, had Zimmerman stayed in his car -- which he almost certainly would have done had he seen a light-skinned, non-black kid walking instead of a black teenager, Trayvon Martin would be alive today.

This isn't about the verdict, or at least not just about it. As Ta-Nehisi Coates explained in his brilliant analysis, the verdict may well be the correct one based on the way the law is written, given the lack of eyewitnesses. But as Coates' essay makes clear, this case is above all about the fact that all too often in our country young black men, and black people in general, are prejudged by their fellow Americans in a way that leads to them suffering direct harm. Yes, it's about race.

Yesterday was George Zimmerman's judgment day, at least as far as our criminal courts are concerned. He was acquitted by a jury of his peers. But Trayvon Martin's judgment day took place on Feb. 26, 2012. On that night he was judged "suspicious" by a jury of one, and the evidence was as plain as the skin on his face.