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Michael Steele: Zimmerman Trial Was Not the Place for a Race Debate

When news broke late Saturday night that a jury had acquitted George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin, the flood of grief and anger carried memories of past tragedies to the surface. “Trayvon Martin will forever remain in the annals of history next to Medgar Evers and Emmett Till as symbols for the fight for equal justice for all,” said Martin’s family’s attorney, referencing two other young black men whose killers walked free. But Michael Steele, the first African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee, thinks Zimmerman’s trial is the wrong arena for a much-needed conversation about race in America.

“Was there a level of profiling going on? Absolutely. But to the extent there are racial overtones, that was not this case, that was not an argument the prosecution brought,” he told me Monday morning. “The facts just don’t bear it out—you don’t know the mind of George Zimmerman because he didn’t testify. There’s a lot of projection that I think is a disservice to what should be a legitimate debate about racial attitudes and profiling. But I don’t know if this case is the one to do that, absolutely.” 

In the last days of the trial, Steele’s Twitter logged his frustration with both the defense and the prosecution. When Zimmerman’s lawyer said that if his client were black, he would never have been charged with a crime, Steele fumed, “Is he high?” But he told me he thought the jury delivered the only verdict it could after the prosecution “didn’t even have the underlying elements in place for manslaughter, let alone second-degree murder.” Such a frustrating and complex trial may not be the right entrée into a serious conversation about racism, he said. “You’ve got to be very careful that you don’t cloud an important discussion with emotion and dissatisfaction with a criminal justice system that is perceived not to have gotten it right, when in fact they did." 

Racial profiling isn’t the only weighty issue that Steele thinks has been inappropriately “bootstrapped” to this case: He thinks the debate over “stand your ground” laws, which many think encouraged Zimmerman’s vigilantism, is also misplaced. Pointing out that “stand your ground” did not figure into Zimmerman’s actual courtroom defense, Steele dismissed the idea that people across the country should channel their anger about the verdict into lobbying to change Florida’s laws.

“People in Florida don’t give a rat’s ass what people in Maryland think about their law,” said Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor. He said he finds the law “a little bit kind of Wild Wild West-y, and prone to create situations like the one we saw with Zimmerman,” he said, but he thinks that’s beside the point. “I don’t see any groundswell in Florida. It makes for something for talking heads to mumble about on TV, but the reality is, it’s meaningless, because you’re not going to change that law unless the people of Florida want that law changed.”

The tabloid coverage and legal intricacies of the trial aside, Steele said he hopes Martin’s needless killing could still do some good in starting a national conversation about the way African-Americans, and especially young black men, are perceived. “The trial aspect gets into what people did or didn’t do, and that’s beyond the control of anyone having a discussion,” he said. “But, more importantly, on the level of the profiling, the imaging, of young African-American boys and men … that we’re just not addressing, I think that Trayvon’s case can be very helpful and very important in that conversation.”

Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @NCaplanBricker. 

Correction: Due to an editing error, this piece originally stated that Steele was formerly governor of Maryland. He was the lieutenant governor.