07/23/2013 12:23 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2013

The Politics of Racism


On Sunday, Senator John McCain responded to President Obama's comments regarding the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial, stating that Obama's words were "impressive," that the case highlights "the differences that remain," presumably between how whites and minorities are treated by the justice system. In many ways, it's nice to see a prominent Republican bucking the conservative trope that the investigation of Martin's death and the trial of George Zimmerman had nothing to do with race. President Obama and Harry Reid, with McCain and others, have shared this sentiment -- in one form or another -- with one consistent caveat: all three men have taken great pains to assure the public of their trust in the system.

Obama: "Once the jury's spoken, that's how our system works."
Reid: "I'll accept the verdict..."
McCain: "I trust the judgment of a jury, of his peers, of individuals. I can't second guess..."

How can each of these men acknowledge the anomalies in the investigation of Trayvon Martin's death without questioning the system in charge of such proceedings? Why is the notion of dissatisfaction with the way our country investigates crimes and tries criminals a palpable taboo for the few with power to make lasting changes?

Over time, Americans have been developing an affinity for "the way things are." The Constitution -- as its status as a proper noun indicates -- enjoys the religious gravitas of the Bible. Questioning the perceived (and, thus, subjective) intention of the apostolic Founding Fathers, and the oft-vague amendments to their seminal document has now been met with the growing potential for "armed rebellion." Apparently, this devotion, this sycophantic obsession with "the way things are" extends to our measurably racist justice system and it is this very sentiment that will scare politicians out of advocating for real change.

Naturally, the protests are already dying down. The national media is preparing to move on, skeptical of the future of efforts to "examine" so-called 'Stand Your Ground' laws. But that's not the problem. If 'Stand Your Ground' laws were immediately invalidated across the country, the poisoned tree would continue to support its rotting fruit elsewhere: Stop-and-Frisk, the War on Drugs, a system that is quick enough to imprison 10 percent of black men but too slow, inept or ignorant to protect one black boy.

I know the feeling that the word "racist" evokes in blacks and whites alike. It conjures images that many would like to, if not forget, then certainly not think about. Some may feel that using such a term to describe a core tenant of this nation's governance is inflammatory at best. After all, as Sen. McCain pointed out on Sunday, "we have made significant progress." Right?

In my life, I've never been violently hosed during a protest or savaged by German Shepherds. The game has changed. Instead of racism, it's "discrimination." It's "profiling." So, no, I haven't been beaten at a traffic stop. But I am often followed by police. I have seen mothers pull their children to the other side of the street to avoid walking past me at night. I've noticed the conspicuous attention I'm sometimes given as I walk into a nice store, black and tattooed, and have heard the click of car doors more time than I can remember.

Racism has changed; it's learned to be subtle. It is this racism -- the kind hidden in the slums, shrouded under the guise of law -- that is perhaps more dangerous because it operates as a specter, hidden from those with the power to fight it. And, until our leaders are willing to acknowledge that the problem lies in the system, rather than one incident or law, we will never see true progress.