Where Do We Go From Here? Solutions in the Wake of Trayvon Martin & George Zimmerman
I was in Florida visiting my family, less than 100 miles from Sanford, when the verdict was delivered declaring George Zimmerman not guilty. I remember feeling numb, then sick to my stomach. My reaction was intensified by the fact that I was with the African American males who matter the most to me: my husband, a dark-skinned man with a booming voice and larger-than-life personality; my younger brother, a six-foot, one-inch man with an easygoing spirit who works in corporate America by day and the music scene by night; and my eight-year-old son, an inquisitive young man who is one of my life's greatest joys. As I looked at them, hot, angry tears flowed down my cheeks. I shut off my phone and the television. I didn't want to see any news stories, talk to anyone, or read any blog posts or tweets. I just wanted to be alone with my anger and grief. I needed that time and space to process the verdict and its implications.
Later, when I listened to President Obama's response to the verdict, I imagined that he, too, needed that same kind of time. As the leader of a nation, the President is required daily to process situations quickly and decisively, and to make statements about the nation's position and next steps, almost immediately. But this time was different. As an African American man and father, I am sure this case hit home and struck a chord in ways no other policy or issue has during his presidency. President Obama said, "Trayvon Martin could have been my son[...] Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago."i One must understand that the killing of Trayvon Martin and the "not guilty" verdict of George Zimmerman hit African Americans like the knockout blow of a heavyweight fighter. African Americans like our President.
President Obama acknowledged some important truths in his speech about the Zimmerman verdict-truths no president has ever stated so plainly. First, America's criminal laws are applied unevenly, resulting in racial disparities in "everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws."ii In 2010, the Sentencing Project found that African Americans were incarcerated at a rate 5.6 times higher than that of whites.iii Research shows that this trend was exacerbated by the "war on drugs" that began in the 1980s. In 2010, Congress passed and President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparities for crack versus powder cocaine. This legislation came about, in part, because of research that showed both versions of the drug were essentially the same.iv Prior to the passage of this law, 80 percent of those sentenced for dealing crack cocaine were African American.v
Second, there is historical context for the fact that African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, both as victims and perpetrators of violence. This brutality is a direct result of our nation's violent past, which has resulted in poverty and dysfunction. From the imprisonment of emancipated slaves and creation of a new labor market structure, to the War on Drugs, to mandatory minimum prison sentences, African Americans males have been prey to an uneven criminal justice system that has decimated the African American family structure and weakened communities.
Third, the history and context for how African Americans are treated in our country are often ignored or denied. But that doesn't make them less relevant or change their far-reaching implications, such as this "not guilty" verdict. Our biases, explicit or implicit, affect our thoughts about particular groups or individuals, our impressions of them and their behaviors, and the way we act toward them or respond to them. "Moreover, although stereotypical notions are always present, people are more likely to fall back on them in making judgments when they feel challenged, face uncertainty, or experience sensory overload."vi While our nation has come a long way from the Jim Crow era, biases are still proven to play a significant role in how African Americans are treated in school, by the criminal justice system, when attempting to access health care, and when seeking employment.vii For example, African American boys are 2.5 times more likely than white boys to be suspended from school. However, analysis of school data reveals that African American boys are not committing more school offenses than whites and are more likely to be suspended for subjective infractions such as "excessive noise" or "disrespect."viii The American Psychological Association has found that these disparities are driven by racial stereotyping of students, lack of classroom management skills, and lack of culturally competent practices.ix
Thus, I believe what President Obama demonstrated in his remarks is that the African American community's response to the tragic death of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent "not guilty" verdict for his accused killer is not a naïve, hothead, or knee-jerk reaction to not getting its way. It is not merely a temper tantrum. This frustration is because the African American community has just watched all of the injustices against its race-slavery, mass incarceration, poverty, media attacks, poor education, unemployment, redlining, predatory lending, premature death, etc-culminate in the most horrific way, in the death of a child and the exoneration of his killer.
So now, the question remains: what are we able to do? How do we ensure that this young man did not die in vain? Can we make America a better nation to redeem the legacy of Trayvon Martin?
1. Assess racial impact of existing and proposed policies and laws.
Every day, our nation's decision makers work on issues that deeply impact the lives of all people of color. These proposed policies and legislation are influenced by individuals' perceptions of the people who will be affected. There is no way to legislate or regulate how people think; an individual must truly believe in equality and fairness to support policies affirming the dignity of all people. We can, however, commit to assessing the racial impact of policies, legislation, and regulations as they are being drafted and considered, thus ensuring they are in the best interest of traditionally disenfranchised populations, including African Americans, Hispanics, Asian and Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans.
For example, in states with Stand Your Ground laws, research has found that in cases where the victims and assailants are strangers and neither is law enforcement, white shooters of black victims have been deemed justified in their use of a gun in nearly 36 percent of cases. In contrast, black shooters of white victims have been deemed justified in less than three percent of cases.x When these types of discrepancies exist, laws must be evaluated and reconsidered.
2. Reduce bias in policing.
The law enforcement field should be strengthened by training officers at the state and local levels to reduce racial bias. The Consortium for Police Leadership in Equity at the University of California, Los Angeles is leading this charge. Dr. Philip Atiba Goff, co-founder and executive director of research at the consortium, notes that, "both civilians and law enforcement are more likely to ‘see' weapons in the hands of unarmed Black men than unarmed White men... even otherwise gentle individuals to literally perceive Black children as less than human-mentally associating them with apes and seeing them as far older than they actually are."xi Changing the individual perception of law enforcement officers toward African American youth, particularly males, is critical to ending the school-to-prison pipeline, as well as ending the excessive use of force that results in the loss of young black lives.
3. Invest long-term in opportunities for African American males.
The issues that African American boys face, particularly those who live in poverty, did not materialize overnight. It is, as the President suggested, a result of historical challenges that have severely limited opportunity for African American males. The educational pipeline must be fortified along all points where African American boys can potentially be lost. These milestones in the education system include : 1) early childhood years; 2) third grade, when literacy skills must be solidified to ensure future learning; 3) middle school years, when course failure and poor attendance are often precursors to high school dropout; 4) ninth grade, when the transition to high school is often overwhelming; 5) twelfth grade, when the realization that graduation is not readily attainable often leads to giving up; and 5) college years, when access is limited by academic record or lack of money and sufficient supports are not in place to ensure African American boys persist to obtain a degree. Too many African American children attend schools that fail them along some point of the educational continuum, and this simply cannot continue.
Similarly, investment is needed in employment opportunities for African American males. Research shows that early labor market attachment leads to ongoing attachment to the workforce. Yet, the unemployment rate for African American youth ages 16-19 is 43.6 percent.xii Youth need exposure to skills and training that lead to long-term careers that will pay livable wages. We know the scale of the problem, particularly for youth of color, yet we have not provided sufficient resources to address this issue.
Eradicating economic inequality has profound implications for all individuals, but in particular minorities. African American children are far more likely than other races to live in conditions of persistent and concentrated poverty. The communities in which many African American children and youth live are riddled with violence and crime and devoid of many of the supports that enrich and protect the lives of young people. Elevating policies that assist low-income families in leading stable lives helps to ensure the long-term success of the children in those families. It is critical that we make their communities safer places to live and grow.
If America is to thrive, we must unite in the belief that the livelihood and wellbeing of all African American people and families-indeed, all people and families of any race or ethnicity-is a responsibility that we all bear together. This requires that we view one another as equals and not as "us" and "them." That isn't a one-day exercise. It's a deeply personal and ongoing exploration of one's feelings and beliefs. As Americans, we must each commit to improving how we see and interact with our fellow citizens, regardless of the color of their skin. Absent that, many of the solutions we advance will be short-lived.
i The White House, Office of The Press Secretary, Remarks by the President on Trayvon Martin, July 19, 2013, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/07/19/remarks-president-trayvon-martin
iii Marc Mauer & Ryan S. King, Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration By Race and Ethnicity, The Sentencing Project, 2007, http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/rd_stateratesofincbyraceandethnicity.pdf
iv "House Could Consider Legislation This Week to Reduce Crack and Cocaine Sentencing Disparity," The Leadership Conference, July 27,2010, http://www.civilrights.org/archives/2010/07/1029-sentencing-disparity-vote.html
vi Douglass Massey, Categorically Unequal: The American Stratification System, 2008, 11.
vii Cheryl Staats, State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review 2013, Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, 2013, http://www.kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/reports/2013/03_2013_SOTS-Implicit_Bias.pdf
viii Russell J. Skiba, et al., "The Color of Discipline: Sources of Racial and Gender Disproportionality in School Punishment," Urban Review 34, no. 4 (2002), 317-342.
ix American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force, "Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations," American Psychologist 63, no. 9 (2008), 852-862, http://www.apa.org/pubs/info/reports/zero-tolerance.pdf.
x John Roman, "Is American Criminal Justice Color-Blind? The Statistics Say No," Urban Institute MetroTrends Blog, July 16, 2013, http://blog.metrotrends.org/2013/07/american-criminal-justice-color-blind-statistics/
xi Phillip Atiba Goff, "Running from Race in Our Minds," Huffington Post, March 24,2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/phillip-atiba-goff/trayvon-martin-race_b_1376621.html
xii United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, June 2013,http://www.bls.gov/web/empsit/cpseea04.htm