Single White Female: The Face of American Justice?

Cherise Charleswell I Women's Issues I Commentary I July 3rd, 2013

Single White Female -- the main subject matter of this 1992 film was based around a woman who began to develop a strong, uncanny, and disturbing resemblance to her roommate. Alright, maybe not all of the jurors in the high-profile "Trayvon Murder trial" are single; however, the rest of the description fits perfectly. They are all white and female, bearing a great resemblance to each other, instead of reflecting the diversity of the American populace, or the even the racial and ethnic diversity that exists in Central Florida. These six women have been selected from a pool of hundreds of prospective jurors to decide upon whether self-appointed neighborhood watch patrol man, Zimmerman, was justified in carrying out the murder, based on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)-drafted and adopted law known as the "Stand Your Ground Law." As the media continues to cover the trial, commentators and legal analysts seem to happily and conveniently glance over the racial and gender composition of the jury pool and how it will affect the trial.

Clearly, as diverse as the city of Sanford, Florida is, this final assortment of jurors is nothing more than an example of "gerrymandering of the jury pool." For many, the purposeful selection of this homogenous jury is quite disturbing, in that their lack of diversity will readily translate to a lack of understanding, empathy, and interest in the trial overall. In fact, Defense lawyer, Don West, was hoping exactly for this, and his crude and inappropriate attempt at a 'knock knock" joke during the opening of the trial, harkens back to this very point. These white female jurors will prove to be extremely desirable jurors for the defense, because they are so far removed from the trial, the subject matter, and the social realities of racial prejudice. In essence, their ignorance (despite the international outcry concerning this trial) or lack of concern about the death of a young African-American boy in their community means that they will be more likely, than any other group, to acquit George Zimmermann.

The homogenous nature of the group also decreases the likelihood that any of the jurors would actually empathize with the victim and his family, due to what is referred to as the "racial empathy gap." In order to study this gap, researchers at the University of Milano-Bicocca took an all-white cohort and had them view video clips of a needle or an eraser touching someone's skin, and measured their reactions. Measurements were conducted utilizing skin conductance tests, and if a participants hand got sweaty, it was a reflection of activity in the pain matrix of the brain. The rationale of the test is that, witnessing another's pain triggers the same network in our brains that activate when we are also hurt. The study concluded with researchers being able to demonstrate the racial empathy gap, in that the all-white cohort responded far more dramatically when they viewed white people receiving a painful stimulus, when compared to that subjected on black people. What does this mean for the Trayvon Martin murder trial? If and how greatly the racial empathy gap is at play, the selection of a homogenous white female jury would make it impossible to overcome.

Still, a problem even bigger than the possible lack of empathy is the self-inflicted ignorance and lack of understanding about the life experiences of those who make up America's marginalized majorities. About two weeks ago, I was attending a conference in Philadelphia, and upon exiting the day's meetings, I collapsed on the hotel bed in front of the television. Soon enough, I found myself engrossed in a featured story that followed three fathers from different walks of life - one African American, another Latino, and the other Caucasian - and their sons who gathered to discuss the Trayvon Martin murder. There were clear and distinctive opinions about the case. While the African American and Latino fathers seemed quite bothered and equally passionate about the case, and often reaching for their sons while they spoke; they simply stated that they could relate, that the story hits home, that it was one of their worst fears, and that it could have easily been their son. The response from the middle-class, Caucasian father was strikingly different. He admitted to not really following the case too closely because it didn't seem to really be of interest or seem applicable to his life; and, of course, he was more interested in hearing about the "circumstances" that led up to the murder of an unarmed teenager. Evidently, he and his son did not have to worry about racial profiling and the possible fatal consequences.

In looking at these factors and how they have an impact on world-views and opinions, it makes it quite difficult to apply them to the all-white female jury and not raise a number of questions and doubts about whether they have the needed level of understanding, empathy, and experiences to decide the outcome of this case.

Yes, one has to ask, what is the likelihood that a small, but now influential group of white Southern women, who may hold on to deep-seated and historic prejudices against African Americans, who may have little interactions with African Americans and vastly different life experiences than people of color, and who may find credence in racial stereotypes, such as those that Zimmerman's defense were trying to exploit before the trial began; will understand the frustrations and dangers of racial profiling, the high possibility that the "Stand Your Ground Law" is inherently racist, or be able to empathize with and fully comprehend the frustrations that communities of color have with the police - especially the Sanford Police Department and how they chose to handle this case?

And if you have to ask, what stereotypes? Surely you are familiar with the attempts to turn the athletic hoodie-wearing, beverage-toting adolescent into a dangerous, violent, and drug-using thug? Or the Defense's desire to release a photo of Trayvon Martin wearing a "grill!" One would believe that it is Trayvon Martin, the victim, who is standing trial, the way that George Zimmerman's defense attorneys are making use of racial and deeply-rooted stereotypes in an attempt to mar his character. The Defense was basically trying to amount these stereotypes to try to appease to the very same type of group that now fills the seats in the jury box. Similar to "Dog Whistle politics," key terms were used and certain aspects of Trayvon's life, which were not atypical of a teenager of any race, were used or highlighted to convince white America that Trayvon had to be the aggressor, and thus Zimmerman was justified in his actions.

Once again, commentary regarding the selection of all-white female jurors is lacking, and for the most part almost nonexistent in feminist and women's issues-related media. Ironically, it is also white females who have traditionally and historically held the most influence, visibility, and positions of power in American women's rights movement. It was this racial dominance that eventually led to the emergence of Black feminism, womanism, Mujeres, Chicano feminism, etc; collectively referred to as Third Wave feminism. These subsets expanded the scope of traditional feminism, to include a focus on all forms oppressions, gender and racial. Their concern is on how a variety of factors: race, sex, and socioeconomic class intersect and impact life experiences. Furthermore, they focus on the betterment of society as a whole, as well as gaining full equality for women. Womanists and the other groups vocally challenge and condemn traditional white-female feminism for being unable and unwilling to address these factors of oppression that exist outside or are complimentary to patriarchal oppression; even more-so, that remains unwilling to admit and realize its role in upholding oppression and discrimination due to their positions of privilege. It is this removal from the plight and experiences from the realities of racial prejudice that explains the mostly deafening silence from women's media involving the Trayvon Martin murder case, and it is also what makes the selection of an all-white female jury disturbing, wrong, and unjust.

Feminists should understand and adamantly speak out against the lack of peers or full representation of a minority group when it comes to decision making. For example, women's groups would and have readily spoken out against and condemned any legislative body convening to decide upon women related issues, such as reproductive health, that completely excludes women, or has too small of a representative body of women. The lack of diversity and sufficient representation of minorities, and particularly that of African Americans on the Trayvon Martin jury, should elicit the same degree of outrage.