George Zimmerman and the Market Price of Fear

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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A Florida jury has updated the market price of fear. The price varies by region, race, history, circumstance, what's in the news. Seven weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, for instance, an otherwise sensible acquaintance in a small town adjacent to mine wondered if it was safe to let the kids out to trick-or-treat. Behind every mask was a potential terrorist. The bubble market in Islamic terrorism has subsided over the years, but it can boom again, literally and figuratively, in an instant.

The market in young black males, by contrast, has held remarkably steady. Sex and race are big price components. Had George Zimmerman pursued a white woman and shot her dead under similarly murky circumstances back on Feb. 26, 2012, few juries would have given him the benefit of the doubt. But young black males in Chicago kill each other at a fearsome rate, and Trayvon Martin carried that fact, and so much more, with him everywhere he went.

Vietnamese gangs may be ruthless, but a young Asian man walking in the Florida night with a bag of Skittles is unencumbered by their sins. The market prices the danger of Asian men very differently from the threat of black male teens. In some sense, Martin courted yesterday's verdict by dismissing the market's one.

The conflicting views of the verdict stem in part from differing assessments of Zimmerman's fear. If you put yourself in Zimmerman's shoes, watching the black kid walk through the crime-plagued neighborhood, and you feel afraid, the jury reached a proper decision. If you project yourself into that night without panic, you probably view Zimmerman as a jittery murderer. It's all about how you price fear.

As it happens, the law prices it quite high. By Florida law, Zimmerman's fear justified his gun and justified using it to kill an unarmed boy. Florida puts a high value on fear, and a high value on the freedom to walk around with a loaded gun to help assuage it. And it places a relatively low value on black boys. The jury didn't set those prices yesterday. It merely confirmed them.

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Frank Wilkinson at