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Michael Keegan Headshot

Chief Justice Roberts, Meet Trayvon Martin

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Less than three weeks ago, the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a key enforcement provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, saying that the Act had worked so well that its provisions designed to confront ingrained institutional racism were no longer necessary.

Just this weekend, a Florida man was acquitted for shooting an unarmed African American teenager walking to his father's house armed with only a bag of Skittles. The verdict was heartbreaking, not just because it left Trayvon Martin's family without justice, but because it illustrated so clearly what so many Americans already know. Our criminal justice system, like our voting system, is stacked against people of color.

The George Zimmerman trial -- at which the subject of race was barely mentioned, even though it was ever-present both inside and outside the courtroom -- highlighted what five justices on the Supreme Court failed to recognize. While we have made undeniable progress on civil rights, racial bias in the form of race-neutral code words and systemic injustice continues to be the silent force determining access to the ballot box and vulnerability in our criminal justice system. These two injustices are, in fact, intimately linked. The over-incarceration of African Americans has led to the creation of an entire class of Americans who are cut off from the franchise of voting.

The Stand Your Ground laws, measures pushed by the NRA and the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which allow armed citizens to shoot first against a perceived threat even when they've been the aggressor, are a case in point. Laws like Florida's Stand Your Ground measure help create a climate like the one that encouraged George Zimmerman to use lethal force against an unarmed teenager.

Stand Your Ground laws, which are all the rage on the right, don't work for everyone. In fact, recent analysis shows that white perpetrators who shoot African American victims are 11 times more likely to get off on a Stand Your Ground defense than African American perpetrators who shoot white victims. Tragically, the same racial bias holds true for "justifiable homicides" across the board.

The Zimmerman defense and right-wing media portrayed the deceased Trayvon Martin as a violent, pot-smoking thug -- the stereotype that looms large in a criminal justice system that is officially race-blind but still produces wildly different outcomes for white people and people of color. As the ACLU has found, African Americans are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana than are white Americans, despite nearly identical rates of usage. What for white teenagers is often viewed as a bad habit or a passing phase is for African American teenagers viewed as the first step in a life of crime.

Yes, let's respond to this verdict by mourning Trayvon and mourning an all-too-common disparity of justice. But then, let's organize. We must elect leaders who will speak the simple truth about race and justice in America, and will work to fix the system. We must push for the end to laws like Stand Your Ground that endanger our communities, work to restore meaningful voting rights protections, and insist on the nomination of Supreme Court justices who fully understand how the law and the Constitution affect ordinary Americans. Five Supreme Court justices may think that systemic racism in America does not need to be addressed. We must work to elect leaders at all levels of government who know that that is wrong, that the work for civil rights and equal opportunity for all is far from finished.