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Zimmerman Attorney's 'Literacy Test' for Rachel Jeantel

Yohuru Williams, Special to The Informer from New American Media | 7/10/2013, noon

Watching the testimony of Rachel “Dee Dee” Jeantel last week and the strong reaction her testimony elicited in the press and on social media provides a fertile opportunity for us to examine if we are — as Justice Roberts and the Supreme Court argued in Shelby County v. Holder — truly post racial.

In 1865, the state of Mississippi sought to disqualify blacks from participating in legal proceedings as witnesses by subjecting them to “rules and tests of the common law as to competency and credibility.” At a time when very few African Americans had the benefit of an education, literacy was the most common device used to exclude the testimony of black witnesses and relatedly through the denial of the right to vote, black jurors (selected through rolls of eligible voters). The inability to read and write was often used to challenge a potential witness’s competence, while the inability to articulate oneself clearly was used to establish a lack of credibility.

Although clearly not barred from providing testimony in the Trayvon Martin case, it seems that many in the public sought to hold Rachel Jeantel to the same “racialized” standard. While the ridicule and mockery cut across racial lines, it is hard to believe that critics would shower such harsh treatment on a white witness of similar speech and disposition. While her language and demeanor may not have been palatable to some, neither should impugn either her credibility or integrity as a witness. The intense focus on her conduct alone, and not in conjunction with the actions of George Zimmerman’s defense attorney, is equally problematic. The failure of Zimmerman’s lawyer to show compassion for a young woman who was the last person to speak with Martin and “felt guilty” over his death was hardly the most egregious example. Mr. Don West’s highly objectionable attempt to stand during the beginning portion of Ms. Jeantel’s testimony looked very much like a form of witness intimidation.

While one might expect such outrageous antics from a defense attorney, whose primary job is to challenge the evidence against his client, the public reaction to Ms. Jeantel’s testimony was even more troubling.

Despite Americans’ fascination with the law in the form of television programs like Law and Order, the inner workings of the court can be scary and intimidating for young people, especially for many people of color whose primary experience with the judicial system is adversarial. I am not suggesting that this was the case with Ms. Jeantel before the trial, but the presumption that she should have conducted herself like a seasoned witness is out of bounds. She is a 19-year-old from the city of Miami who suddenly found herself thrust into the epicenter of, for what was for most of us, a national news story, but for her the intensely personal murder of a childhood friend.

While disgusted by the treatment she received, I am equally frustrated by the failure of most to appreciate this as a litmus test on so many other issues of import that still plague our nation’s schools and inner cities, not to mention our young people’s perception of themselves and the world around them.

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