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Dr. Gail Christopher Headshot

Trayvon Martin's Death Must Spur Racial Healing to Break Down Historic Barriers

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Six weeks ago, an unarmed African American teenager lay motionless on a Florida lawn, victim of a gunshot fired in anger. A heated, emotional debate has ensued over whether the shooting of Trayvon Martin by a half- white, half-Latino neighborhood watch volunteer was unjustified or in self-defense. The facts are muddled, the truth elusive, but what's indisputable is the fear and antagonism that race generated on that fateful night.

Public discourse is focused on allegations of bias regarding the initial police investigation and Florida's controversial "Stand Your Ground" law, but the emphasis should be on the level of racial resentment that existed. It's the root cause of the tragic events that transpired. Race created a tense atmosphere that erupted into rage that evening in Sanford, Fla. Now, America must be bold enough to face, mitigate and resolve that anger.

Across the U.S., the tragedy of Trayvon Martin has opened the door to discussions about racism, and the role it plays in society. Sybrina Fulton says she can't get Trayvon back, but wants to ensure that other mothers don't suffer her pain. For this goal to be reality, America must address more than justice: racism must end. And it starts with racial healing that can break down the historic barriers that have divided our nation.

Fifty-seven years ago, the brutal racial slaying of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black youth visiting relatives in Mississippi, shook the nation's consciousness and contributed to triggering the Civil Rights movement. Martin may be this century's catalyst for meaningful and structured efforts toward healing racial resentment and addressing the centuries-old, racial legacy that routinely inflicts physical pain and mental anguish in all communities, and especially on people of color.

As a nation, all Americans black, white, and brown, rich and poor, must shed their denial and acknowledge the nation's racial past, the impact it continues to have today, and then act earnestly to heal the wounds. Hierarchical structures based on the social construct of race remain rampant -- and most blatant in the criminal justice system, where 70 percent of new federal prison inmates in 2011 were African Americans and Latinos, despite those demographics only comprising 30 percent of the U.S. population. Many were non-violent, drug related convictions.

Both conscious and unconscious bias is also evident in education, health, housing, employment and other aspects of American society. Its impact is everywhere. At the end of 2011, the unemployment rate for African Americans was 15.8 percent, double the 7.5 percent unemployment rate for whites. There are wide disparities in education. On average, African American and Latino high school seniors perform math and read at the same level as 13-year-old white students.

Racial bias is an often unspoken part of the American fabric. It is based on 400 years of denying humanity because of physical characteristics -- skin color, hair texture and the contour of facial features. Through the ages, America has attempted to address racism. Strides were made when slavery was abolished, with the legislation of freedom, the era of Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. But these measures didn't delve deeply enough into racial healing or uprooting conscious and unconscious beliefs in racial differences and racial hierarchy. The legacy of racism affects children, families and communities.

Racial profiling occurs every day, creating frictions that can ignite at any moment. George Zimmerman, 28, followed an unarmed black teenager holding unthreatening Skittles candy, despite being explicitly warned not to do so by the police. After Zimmerman shot Martin, unequal justice was applied -- the victim's past was soundly scrutinized, while Zimmerman was not even arrested. Had the roles been reversed, with a black teenager doing the shooting, we know justice would be applied differently.

Historic racial beliefs have shaped American society, our public policy and influenced behaviour of citizens as well as civic and political leaders.

But Martin's death demonstrates that hearts and minds must be changed; our nation must now examine the hostility that allowed it to happen -- what images, perceptions and beliefs fueled a mind to feel authorized to take the life of this child? Our society continues to devalue the lives of children of color and to associate them negatively in society, and this is a legacy of racism.

As a mother, I remember the first time my son drove across the country; I didn't sleep a night until he reached his destination. I told him specific states to avoid and how to respond if stopped by police: do not anger them. When we live in fear for our own, and our children's, safety because of our race, we must all recognize the need for healing.

America must finish this unfinished business. We cannot just acknowledge, or merely use this tragedy to raise awareness of the problem; we must heal the cause. Americans can come together, and change attitudes and beliefs, we can hold each other accountable, and begin the hard work of racial healing in our homes, schools, neighborhoods and places of worship. Healing must include all races and all social and economic classes. There must be a solemn commitment to this work, to unifying our nation, to rejecting racism, to finding strength, not resentment, in our differences - our children, and collective futures are at stake.

America has an opportunity to become a world leader in racial healing. There's an urgency to address this issue today. The changing demographics demand that something be done -- most children in our near future will be kids of color, and many will live in poverty. It creates an imperative for the nation to change the future now. We cannot wait another 100 years.