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Racism in America: The Killing of Trayvon Martin

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When Barack Obama was elected president, many of us were hopeful that it signaled an end to widespread racism. We were naïve. George Zimmerman's not-guilty verdict indicates how much work remains.

From the perspective of a white man born and raised on the Left Coast, race relations have improved. When I was a child there was de facto segregation throughout California. My parents didn't know any people of color. Now there are blacks, Hispanics, and Asians in my Berkeley neighborhood. I have people of color in my extended family.

Despite the progress that has been made, my black, Hispanic, and Asian friends continue to tell harrowing tales of racism. There are large swaths of the U.S. where they are afraid to travel. Blatant racism has been replaced by covert racism.

The elements of the George Zimmerman trial seemed straightforward: Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, was walking home when George Zimmerman, a Caucasian adult, pursued him. There was a struggle and Zimmerman shot Martin dead. It seemed that Zimmerman was guilty, at the least, of manslaughter. Certainly if the roles had been reversed, if it had been Martin who pursued and shot Zimmerman, Martin would have been found guilty, at the least, of manslaughter.

The Zimmerman verdict indicates there are two different standards of justice in America: one for whites and another for blacks. ThinkProgress' Judd Legum detailed the consequences:

1. A black male born in 2001 has a 32% chance of spending some portion of his life in prison. A white male born the same year has just a 6% chance.
2. In major American cities, as many as 80% of young African-American men have criminal records.
3. African-Americans who use drugs are more than four times as likely to be incarcerated than whites who use drugs. African Americans constitute 14% of the population and 14% of monthly drug users. But African-Americans represent 34% of those arrested for a drug offense and 53% of those sentenced to prison for a drug offense.
4. In seven states, African Americans constitute 80% or more of all drug offenders sent to prison.
5. Black students are three and a half times as likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers. One in five black boys receive an out-of-school suspension. Education Secretary Arne Duncan who commissioned the study, said "The undeniable truth is that the everyday education experience for too many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise."
6. Black youth who are referred to juvenile court are much more likely to be detained, referred to adult court or end up in adult prison than their white counterparts. Blacks represented 28% of juvenile arrests, 30% of referrals to juvenile court, 37% of the detained population, 35% of youth judicially waived to criminal court and 58% of youth admitted to state adult prison.
7. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.

Eighteen days before the Zimmerman verdict, the Supreme Court struck down the cornerstone provision of the Voting Rights Act. In her dissent, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg observed

The focus of the Voting Rights Act had properly changed from 'first-generation barriers to ballot access' to 'second-generation barriers' like racial gerrymandering and laws requiring at-large voting in places with a sizable black minority.

Voting discrimination has morphed just as racial prejudice has taken new forms. "Jim Crow" racism has become structural racism.

Many have called for the Department of Justice to review the Zimmerman-Martin case and that should be done. But the Zimmerman verdict and the Supreme Court ruling must serve as a wakeup call for progressives. Racism is alive and well in America. We need to redouble our efforts to build a just and equitable society.

It's been 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. gave his memorable "I Have A Dream" speech in Washington D.C. His words are as applicable today as they were then:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality... We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one... We cannot be satisfied so long as the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote; and the Negro in New York believes he has nothing to vote for. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer famously observed, "Nobody's free until everybody's free." There won't be true democracy in the United States until blacks and whites, and citizens of every color, are on equal footing. Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.