Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Book Review: Suspicion Nation by Lisa Bloom

If you’re going to read one book about the sad state of race relations in America, you should probably read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (I don’t think Lisa Bloom would begrudge me that, since she recommends the book herself). But if you’re going to read two books about race in America - and given the current state of affairs, it certainly couldn’t hurt - you should absolutely pick up a copy of Suspicion Nation by civil rights attorney Lisa Bloom.
The book is an exploration of the new brand of racism in America, tracing its course from something that was blatant and almost a point of pride for some bigots (think George Wallace), to something subtler and, in many ways, just as sinister. Our racial prejudices have become so internalized, so institutionalized, that they are part of daily life and a routine aspect of the criminal justice system. Bloom uses the tragic case of Trayvon Martin to illustrate just how the fears and suspicions we keep (involuntarily, in some cases) in the secret corners of our minds can affect our viewpoints, our judgment, and can be the deciding factor between life and death. George Zimmerman wasn’t acquitted because it was successfully proven that he wasn’t a racist; he was acquitted because his perspective of the world, colored in prejudices he might not even be able to articulate or acknowledge, was shared by his attorneys, the prosecution, and the majority of the jury members who elected not to punish him for Trayvon’s murder.
What Suspicion Nation succeeds at is pinpointing precisely why the Zimmerman verdict feels like a punch in the gut. It’s not just because a murderer escaped justice (that, sadly, happens all the time); it’s that an entirely winnable case was lost due largely to a refusal to address our nation’s race problem. Trayvon Martin was denied justice because it was absurdly easy to persuade the six female jurors that an unarmed seventeen year old constitutes a threat simply based on his race.
In the first half of the book Bloom walks through the case step by step, providing an idiot-proof guide to how this trial ought to have been conducted and the numerous places the prosecution went wrong. She highlights the alternative, more logical approach a better prosecutor might have taken, providing suggestions and analysis that make you wish fervently that she’d been the one in that courtroom advocating for Trayvon, the only person in the case who could not speak for himself.

The sheer number of times the prosecutors dropped the ball is disheartening, to put it mildly. And while Bloom refuses to speculate that this incompetence might have been deliberate, I’m not entirely convinced.  Basic facts were ignored every step of the way, and game-changing arguments that could have turned the tide (and the jury) against Zimmerman were thrown completely out the window. The jury, which ought to have been a carefully selected group of individuals with no prior knowledge of the case, was littered with preconceived notions about not only race and the nature of Florida’s laws, but about Trayvon and Zimmerman themselves.  The state needed only to find six individuals who could go into the trial with the ability to listen impartially to the evidence, and it seems they failed even at that, which may have sunk them long before they were able to selectively and sloppily present the facts of the case.
The logic of dismissing race as a factor is beyond me. Yes, I can understand that intent is difficult to prove in many cases – you can hardly crack open a defendant’s brain and see what they were thinking at the time of the crime—but in this case intent was a crucial part of the case and, Bloom argues, fairly easily proven. The defense claimed, and the jury believed, that all that mattered in the altercation between Trayvon and Zimmerman was “who was on top and who was on the bottom.” This is a factor, to be sure, but then so is the fact that the altercation would not have existed in the first place if Zimmerman hadn’t followed Trayvon, if the teenager hadn’t suspected he was in danger, and if Zimmerman didn’t have a demonstrated history of expressing suspicion toward members of the black community. The prosecution had evidence supporting all this, by the way; they simply failed to use it. As an amateur who has yet to see the inside of a law classroom, even I can see that this was at best negligence, and at worst a determined obfuscation of the facts so the narrative would conform to Zimmerman’s side of the story.
Bloom interjects at several key points to lay out a hypothetical prosecution strategy so simple that a pair of trained monkeys likely could have pulled it off. So why couldn’t the state’s team of prosecutors? While Bloom generously pleads the fifth on a real answer to this query, I have a different one: was it a question of can’t or won’t? It seems only too clear that even the prosecutors ostensibly trying to prove Zimmerman guilty couldn’t completely dismiss the notion that his suspicion of a young black man was reasonable. And that question of reasonableness, Bloom emphasizes, was the key to unlocking the self-defense argument. 
If you’re like me, this book will make you angry. You’ll page through it torn between disbelief and the kind of rage that makes you want to shake someone, perhaps the prosecutors, and tell them to wake up and smell the racial profiling. But after you’ve finished reading, you’ll be haunted by it, by the specter of buried prejudice that exists in every corner of society. The media, the government, your friends and family, even yourself – when it comes down to it none of us is completely innocent of experiencing traces of the ‘suspicion’ Bloom details. The book’s conclusion acknowledges that we have a long road ahead of us when it comes to repairing this damage, but it also ends on a note of hope that we can and will repair the damage we’ve done:
“We can prevent our country from making the same mistake by deciding that the scourges of racial bias and rampant gun violence are intolerable, and that the life of each of our children, every single one, matters and is worthy of our passionate protection” (297).
Let’s hope she’s right.