Minority Rights and the Killing of Trayvon Martin

07/22/2013 01:02 pm ET | Updated Sep 21, 2013

Race alone is not enough to explain the outcome of the Martin Zimmerman trial. We need also to understand the plight of minority groups qua groups if we are to prevent future tragic killings. If the notion of human rights is to be all meaningful, it is imperative both that we help African-Americans achieve parity with other groups, and also that we safeguard the existence and identity of minority groups.

Skin color does not, by itself, explain the minority problems of this country -- although many people certainly view minority issues as simply a question of skin color. The white versus black paradigm was long established by the plight of African Americans, who have been profiled as a group since the nation's foundation, beginning with the enslavement of black Africans, and continued after 1865 by legal segregation.

However Latino and Asian immigration has added a whole new dimension to the idea that minority inequality can be righted by thinking in terms of racial characteristics alone. The reality is that some minority people of color actually out-perform the white majority according to key social indicators. For example, a recent Pew Research Social and Demographic Trends study confirm that the six largest Asian-American groups - Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, and Filipino Americans- outperform whites in both income levels and educational advancement. This is not to belittle the seriousness of the discrimination that does take place against Asian-Americans, but only to demonstrate that anti-discrimination laws based upon ethnic characteristics such as hair texture, skin color, or eye shape will never bring an end to minority inequality.

Ironically, George Zimmerman himself is the progeny of a Peruvian mother and white father, which also allows him to claim minority status as a person of color. Stressing the ethnic characteristics of Zimmerman and Martin may actually serve to confuse rather than clarify the problem, because each minority group has unique historical experiences that define it. Some minorities have suffered horrific subjugation, while other minorities have prospered even in the face of certain forms of discrimination.

President Obama last Friday related his own experience with profiling so as to draw attention to the dangers both of racial profiling and also the so-called stand-your-ground laws. These statues have a similar effect in reality to European countries planning and camping legislation, which targets the Roma in Europe (so called Gypsies) under the guise of neutrally-applied laws. Even if unintentionally, stand-your-ground laws have a disproportionate impact on African-Americans, who, as demonstrated by the killing of Trayvon Martin, can be profiled by anyone who feels intimidated at the presence of such a person. President Obama's response is very much on-point. However, much more is needed.

In addition, human rights standards provide that states must take affirmative actions to protect the existence and identity of their minority groups. This principal was first established by the Permanent Court of International Justice of the League of Nations, in its Minority Schools in Albania Advisory Opinion (1935). The court's opinion advised that countries provide equality-in-fact to minority groups, rather than merely a paper-equality in the form of anti-discrimination laws. States had to ensure special protection for minority languages, religion, and education. The court found that all of this was necessary in order to establish equilibrium for minority groups who found themselves in different situations from those in the majority.

Contemporary human rights treaties use ethnic (inclusive of race), linguistic, religious, and national classifications to define a minority. These conventions encourage states to protect minority culture. Studies have revealed that such protections are critical for minorities to achieve social progress, especially in under-developed, post-colonial societies. This provides an important lesson for African-Americans, whose cultural identity was damaged by their history of both slavery and segregation. Research on minorities confirms that cultural development is a pre-requisite for economic progress. It also helps to explain the popularity of black leaders such as the late Malcolm X who promoted cultural development as prerequisite to repairing post-segregation damage to African-American-identity and also for strengthening black families.

I would describe African Americans, and certain other minority groups such as the Roma as 'special minorities'. Such groups do not fit into traditional immigrant, national or indigenous minority group categories. This is a very real problem, because states are uncertain about what kind of policies can help these groups to achieve parity with the majority population. Both African Americans and European Roma have suffered persecution, including periods of slavery, and both groups are unjustly profiled as a criminal class.

Given the plight of blacks in the United States, such an approach would help us to refocus the public discussion away from simple anti-discrimination laws toward an Afrocentric approach. Sadly, at present it is the criminal justice system that, by default, has become the primary vehicle for addressing African American challenges. Blacks comprise nearly 40 percent of the prison population, transforming jails into a socially perverted form of black social housing. Even worse is the fact that, according to the Department of Justice, nearly one half of all homicide victims are black; which, along with other social pathologies such as drug abuse and gang violence, places African-American group survival at- risk.

Trayvon Martin's memory can be truly honored by a Federal inquiry similar to the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, or Kerner Report that examined causes and solutions to the so called African American 'race-riots' of the 1960s. The Kerner Report's recommendations were updated in the Eisenhower Foundation's Millennium Breach Report by former Senator Fred Harris. A similar blue-ribbon study is necessary to understand the plight of African-Americans, as well as to know how to remedy it. Similar inquiries have been helpful in other countries such as Canada (through her Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples), as well as in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (through its High Commissioner on National Minorities Report on the situation of Roma and Sinti) both of which offer some positive suggestions for new policies to aid these minority groups.

A comprehensive understanding of the question is required if we are to remedy the plight of African Americans. These fellow citizens are affected by a complex array of problems from racial profiling and voter suppression to a slanted criminal justice system and only half- hearted affirmative action. Unfortunately, it takes generations to untangle complex discriminatory regimes such as the formal segregation of African-Americans. Similar problems were encountered when reforming the reservation system for Aboriginal-Canadians. Furthermore, even once abolished the discriminatory practices created by these regimes are passed down to future generations as social norms that makes racial profiling even more difficult to eradicate.

Nonetheless, Trayvon Martin's parents deserve nothing less than a comprehensive inquiry to remedy the plight of African-Americans in the United States.

(Dr. William K. Barth is the author of On Cultural Rights, The Equality of Nations and the Minority Legal Tradition published by Martinus Nijhoff. He researched minority groups as an aspect of international human rights at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom).