Justice failed Trayvon Martin the night he was killed. We should be appalled and outraged, but perhaps not surprised, that it failed him again Saturday night with a verdict setting his killer free.
George Zimmerman's acquittal was set in motion Feb. 26, 2012, before Martin's body was cold. When Sanford, Fla., police arrived on the scene, they encountered a grown man who acknowledged killing an unarmed 17-year-old boy. They did not arrest him or test for drug or alcohol use. They conducted a less-than-energetic search for forensic evidence.
Only a national outcry forced authorities to investigate the killing seriously. Even after six weeks, evidence was found to justify arresting Zimmerman, charging him with second-degree murder. But the chance of dispassionately and definitively establishing what happened that night was probably lost. The only complete narrative was Zimmerman's.
Jurors knew that Zimmerman was an overeager would-be cop with a loaded gun. They were told that he profiled Martin -- young, black, hooded sweatshirt -- as a criminal. They heard that he stalked Martin despite the advice of a 911 operator; that the stalking led to a confrontation; and that, in the confrontation, Zimmerman fatally shot Martin in the chest.
To me, and to many who watched the trial, that Zimmerman recklessly initiated the tragic encounter was enough to establish, at a minimum, guilt of manslaughter. The six women on the jury disagreed.
Those jurors also knew that Martin, at the time of his death, was just three weeks past his 17th birthday. But black boys in this country are not allowed to be children. They are assumed to be men, and to be full of menace.
I don't know if the jury, which included no African-Americans, consciously or unconsciously bought into this racist way of thinking -- there's really no other word. But it hardly matters, because police and prosecutors initially did.
The assumption underlying their ho-hum approach to the case was that Zimmerman had the right to self-defense but Martin -- young, male, black -- did not. The assumption was that Zimmerman would fear for his life in a hand-to-hand struggle but Martin -- young, male, black -- would not.
If anyone wonders why African-Americans feel so passionately about this case, it's because we know that our 17-year-old sons are boys, not men. We know how frightened our sons would be, walking home alone on a rainy night and realizing they were being followed. We know how they would struggle to decide the right course of action, flight or fight.
And we know that a skinny boy armed only with candy does not pose a mortal threat to a healthy adult man who outweighs him by 50 pounds.
The conversation we must have is about how black men, even black boys, are denied the right to be young, to be vulnerable, to make mistakes. We need to talk about why, for example, black men are no more likely than white men to smoke marijuana but nearly four times as likely to be arrested for it?
Trayvon Martin was fighting more than George Zimmerman that night. He was up against prejudices as old as American history, and he never had a chance.
Eugene Robinson is a syndicated columnist.