Where Do We Go From Here? Solutions in the Wake of Trayvon Martin & George Zimmerman

Aug 02, 2013

By Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt Bryant

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." 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." In 2010, the Sentencing Project found that African Americans were incarcerated at a rate 5.6 times higher than that of whites. 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. Prior to the passage of this law, 80 percent of those sentenced for dealing crack cocaine were African American.

So, where do we go from here?

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