August 01, 2013
By Marc H. Morial
“Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
– President Barack Obama
In the weeks since the not-guilty verdict in the second-degree murder trial of George Zimmerman, widespread outrage and legitimate questions about the treatment and perception of young Black men in America have reverberated throughout the nation.
Two weeks ago, in an unscripted appearance in the White House press room, President Obama spoke personally about the historical racial context and the negative pre-conceptions that may have led to the death of Trayvon Martin. He also talked about the racial indignities and systemic disparities that millions of Black men face every day and the questionable Stand Your Ground laws that may be causing more violence than they are supposedly meant to prevent.
The president suggested he would use his “convening power” to engage a cross-section of citizens in doing more to give African American boys “the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them.” We applaud the president for his insightful comments. We hope they touch the nation’s conscience and advance the kind of dialogue and action that is needed to heal America’s festering racial divisions and prevent the deaths of more Trayvon Martins.
The death of Trayvon Martin has re-energized the civil rights community and inspired an outpouring of citizen action not seen since the height of the movement 50 years ago. In dozens of cities across the nation, thousands of people, appalled at the Zimmerman verdict, attended peaceful rallies in support of justice for Trayvon Martin and a civil rights investigation into his killing. The National Urban League stands in solidarity with them. And after we concluded our annual convention in Philadelphia last week, we will be intensifying our quest for a thorough civil rights investigation, along with efforts to end to racial profiling and abolish of Stand Your Ground laws across the country. Many of those “shoot first” laws are contributing to needless bloodshed and are ripe for unequal application based on race.
A recent study by Texas A & M University found that Stand Your Ground-type laws increase homicides by 17-50 percent, “which translates into as many as 50 additional justifiable homicides a year.” And as the case of Marissa Alexander shows, the Florida law is not even being applied consistently. Alexander, who is Black, is serving 20 years in prison for firing a single shot at the ceiling to scare off her abusive husband who was charging towards her. Unlike the Zimmerman case, a Stand Your Ground self-defense claim did not prevent Alexander’s conviction.
Clearly, something is wrong when the man who killed Trayvon Martin is acquitted, while a Black woman who fired a warning shot gets 20 years. As President Obama noted, “There is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.” And as I mentioned in my first column on the State of Black men several weeks ago, these disparities are more than demeaning, they are leading to the over-incarceration, under-employment and disenfranchisement of millions of African American men.
The death of Trayvon Martin has ignited a firestorm of protest. And it’s not just about the shooting, but the many ways America continues to devalue young Black men. Justice for Trayvon is about justice for all.
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.