With the jury’s verdict of “not guilty” in the George Zimmerman case, I felt as if I’d stepped back in time to the ’50s and ’60s, when all-white juries refused to convict the white perpetrators of crimes against black people. Even today, that verdict told me, a young black man’s life is not worth the price of a pack of Skittles and a can of Arizona iced tea. And something is wrong with our judicial system, I thought, when Michael Vick goes to prison for dog fighting, and George Zimmerman is found not guilty after killing an unarmed black teenager.
After my initial shock and horror, I did find some solace in the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supersedes all other courts.” Nevertheless, I remain convinced that America is in the midst of a civil rights crisis.
No black or brown person, regardless of education, class, occupation, behavior or dress, is exempt from racial profiling. Clearly, it was this kind of racial profiling – stereotyping – that drove George Zimmerman to assume that a young black man wearing a hoodie on his way home in a gated community was out of place.
Even some laws, such as Arizona’s SB 1070, invite discriminatory racial profiling against Latinos, Asian-Americans and others presumed to be immigrants, based on how they look or sound. And still other laws and policies, like the “war on drugs,” three strikes or mandatory minimum sentencing and “stand your ground” statutes, disproportionately affect black and brown people.
Now, as we approach the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic March on Washington, it seems appropriate to ask what verdict he would pass on America today. Undoubtedly, blacks have made important progress in the last 50 years, including the historic election of the country’s first black president. By and large, though, I’m certain Dr. King would be distressed by the disparities that still exist between black Americans and white Americans.
In employment, income, health care, wealth creation, the justice system — in so many areas of public life, he would still be dismayed by how far we have to go. He would be appalled and heartbroken by the astounding incarceration rates of black men, the genocide of our young men living in urban centers, and the violence perpetrated against young black men at the hands of both the police and individuals like George Zimmerman.
And yet, I believe Dr. King would call on civil rights and black leaders to speak, not to the black people or to the white people, but to the good people. For it was the good people who worked across racial, religious and socioeconomic lines to change unjust laws. It was the good people who helped black Americans achieve the same rights — under law, at least — as white Americans.
We’re not at the bottom of the mountain anymore. But this verdict reminds us that we still have miles to go. It will take many good people to ensure that we fulfill Dr. King’s dream. It will take all of us, working together, to create an America that truly lives up to the promise of our pledge: “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”