Where Is the Rule of Law?
Public reaction to the Zimmerman verdict, at least the reaction reported in the mass media, has been to condemn the "not guilty" outcome (see here). Indignation has been especially true for blacks, whether they are CNN-paid legal analysts or the usual outraged civil rights leaders. Thought to his credit, Obama did call for calm while briefly mentioning that we are a nation of law. Nuances and details aside, their conclusion (again, Obama's comments aside) is that the verdict was bad for African-Americans.
Let me suggest the opposite: the Zimmerman trial outcome was good for African-Americans, though in ways that many will refuse to believe, let alone accept. The verdict demonstrated that America's commitment to the rule of law can resist both political pressure and threats of violence. This is an accomplishment of the first order, though unrecognized.
By rule of law, I mean government exercising its power in accordance with well-established, clearly written rules explicitly rooted in agreed upon legal principles. One example would be the right of the defendant to know the charges against him or her. This may not seem like much until you consider the opposite: "justice" imposed by force, more often than not, according to momentary whim in which the defendant lacks any protection, any counsel, and any chance to plead his or her case. There are no rules -- only force. Kangaroo courts and lynching are the very opposite of rule of law.
Rule of law, not fleeting emotion, is what protects minorities. If disputes over Zimmerman's guilt or innocence were to be settled by armed conflict, blacks would surely lose, and the death toll would far exceed one black teenager with a hoodie and a bag of Skittles. Indeed, entire black neighborhoods would be destroyed if emotion trumped adherence to law. One only needs to look at the civil war in Syria to see what happens when violent force replaces rule of law.
Moreover, rule of law is also essential to commerce, for without it, buying and selling is replaced by thievery and looting. Doubters only need visit a crime-ridden neighborhood, or entire city like Detroit, to see the economic wages of lawlessness.
Especially considering today's economic tribulations of African-Americans (young males in particular), it would be disastrous if businesses and factories fled inner-city neighborhoods to escape anarchy. Similarly, imagine if street gangs ran schools and failing grades or even expulsions could be reversed by intimidation. It should go without saying that a well-run, orderly school with educators in charge is the ticket to progress.
Are the interests of blacks advanced when black juries ignore indisputable evidence and the law to declare the black defendant innocent? What about lying to keep the criminal out of jail? Who wins in such instances? The answer, obviously, is criminals whose future victims are likely to be African-Americans. In the long run, closely heeding the law far outshines taking the law into one's own hands, regardless of the momentary satisfaction.
Most clearly, celebrating rule of law is hardly what angry crowds want to hear. They want red meat, not lessons on abstract principles. What demagogue wants to give a dull lecture on the law? Sad to say, racial politics is often a pissing contest, and the ticket to prominence is inflammatory hyperbole. Any black leader insisting that blacks are better off accepting an unpopular verdict than going outside the law would surely be accused of selling out or otherwise being racially disloyal. In today's racially polarized environment, it is a message with no market.
It is also true that the rule of law concept is not easily grasped, particularly immediately after an unpopular court decision. I taught the topic for years, and even college students often seemed puzzled. Picture Al Sharpton at a street demonstration explicating why the rule of law helped Hong Kong prosper while rampant lawlessness has economically devastated cities like Camden and East St. Louis. This rule of law/prosperity link is not initially self-evident, and a serious explanation quickly gets complicated -- for example, the importance of the sanctity of contracts, the costs of policing and other burdens on business that come from disregarding the law. I'd guess that a minute into Sharpton's rule of law lecture, the impatient crowd would begin shouting, "Trayvon, Trayvon, no justice, no peace"...so class dismissed.
What makes this disregard so ironic is that leaders and TV commentators have called for "dialogues" and "conversations" in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict. Do they mean conversations about how the rule of law protects minorities and is essential to the prosperity of African-Americans? I doubt it; rule of law is just not part of the equation in today's race-infused political climate.
The word "tragedy" has been endlessly banded about post-Zimmerman verdict. But I would argue that it is equally tragic that the importance of accepting unpopular but properly reached jury verdicts is universally ignored. Surely black leaders know its critical importance, and what better time to make the point? Perhaps President Obama -- who, after all, did teach constitutional law -- ought to step and give a 15-minute lesson.