Race in America

Supporters gather to join candlelight vigil at exact moment when Martin was shot one year ago in SanfordIn a perverse sort of way, the not guilty verdict against George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin murder case in Florida was good for America.

The evidence lies in the scores of demonstrations last Saturday across the United States against the outcome of the case, but more important, in the debate it has spurred about race in America.

Indeed, one of the paradoxes of America’s election of Barack Obama, twice, as its president was the silence, or perhaps awkwardness, it imposed on the discourse on how race is lived in the US.

Obama’s white, liberal supporters — and others — could point to an African-American in the White House and conclude that the project launched by events such as the protests of Selma and the march on Washington was concluded.

Obama himself — with his Jeremiah Wright experience during his first campaign and the backlash against his criticism policy for their “stupid” arrest of black Harvard professor Henry Gates — caused the president, it seemed, to be circumspect about opening, or engaging in any public, robust discussion of race.

That, at least, was up to the Zimmerman verdict and Obama’s observation that “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago”.

The fundamental point is that while America has made significant progress against crude bigotry, there is still some effort yet to be made to filter racism fully out of the national psyche. The sophistry that overlaid much of the first-term opposition to Obama’s presidency merely hid racial discomfiture.

Obama rightly did not downplay problems in America’s black community — the violence among its young men, teenage pregnancy, and educational underachievement. He wants black people to be held accountable.

But importantly, he understands that there is also a context to black social dislocation in America. The president’s post-verdict intervention, in that regard, not only added legitimacy to last weekend’s demonstrations, but, in a sense, gave his imprimatur for a serious, mature discussion of the issues.

In a sense, Obama is re-engaging the conversation in his Jeremiah Wright speech, which, unfortunately, was short-circuited by the exigencies of electoral politics and the politics of government.

Yet, it needs some explaining why African-Americans, who account for 12 per cent of the population, are so disproportionately represented in the country’s prisons. One in 15 black men is in jail, compared to 1 in 106 for whites.

One in three black men are likely to spend time in prison during their lifetime and are twice as likely to be arrested and four times more likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police.

They receive longer sentences — by 10 per cent — than their white counterparts. They are also 21 per cent more likely to receive mandatory sentences.

When it comes to cases of murder, African-Americans have 1.75 times greater chance of receiving the death sentence than a white person convicted of the crime. If the victim is white, the killer is 3.5 times as likely to receive the death penalty than if the victim is of another race.

These disparities can’t be explained only by dysfunction in black communities. There is more, which the Trayvon Martin verdict has given America leave to discuss.

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