Tim Boyles/Getty ImagesEric Holder speaks to the National Convention of the N.A.A.C.P. on July 16, 2013, in Orlando, Fla.
Attorney General Eric Holder reaffirmed yesterday that federal prosecutors were investigating whether George Zimmerman acted out of racial hostility when he killed Trayvon Martin in February 2012. It seems worth a try, although the Justice Department will get attacked for even looking into it.
Calling the shooting “tragic and unnecessary,” Mr. Holder said in a speech to the N.A.A.C.P. in Florida that it is time for “our nation to speak honestly — honestly — and openly about the complicated and emotionally charged issues that this case has raised.”
Those issues, he said, include laws like the one in Florida that “senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods.”
Mr. Holder said that Stand Your Ground laws try to fix something that was never broken. He said: “There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if — and the ‘if’ is important — if no safe retreat is available,” in confrontations outside a person’s home. Removing that requirement undermines public safety “by allowing and perhaps encouraging violent situations to escalate in public.”
Mr. Holder could have added to his list of senseless laws the proliferation of concealed-carry statutes around the country. Florida’s deadly combination of Stand-Your-Ground and concealed carry laid the foundation for an untrained man like Mr. Zimmerman to go out into the night with a gun on his hip looking for people he judged to be criminals.
Would he have gotten out of his truck and followed Mr. Martin if he had not been armed? It’s hard to believe he would have.
While Mr. Holder did not say he believed Mr. Zimmerman was motivated by race, he said there are “disparities that are too commonly swept under the rug” in the way African Americans, particularly young African-American men, are treated by the law.
“Years ago,” he said, “some of these same issues drove my father to sit down with me to have a conversation — which is no doubt familiar to many of you — about how, as a young black man, I should interact with the police, what to say and how to conduct myself if I was ever stopped or confronted in a way that I thought was unwarranted.”
There is no question that the police unjustly stop, question and arrest African Americans at a greater rate than white Americans — just look at New York’s outrageous stop-and-frisk policy. That dynamic is fraught, but perhaps less dangerous than the one between a young black man and an armed civilian looking for “suspicious characters.”