By Lee A. Daniels
No matter how much some commentators try to spin the not guilty verdict of George Zimmerman as an example that the legal system worked properly, the freeing of Trayvon Martin’s killer actually underscores multiple bitter truths.
One is that for black Americans, “the law” has more often been predator than protector.
The determined, creative work of black Americans and their allies among other Americans that in the 1960s finally made America a democracy in fact, not just rhetoric, has tended to obscure that reality because it offers a more inspiring cover story of America’s past, present and future.
But, the fact is that for most of American history “the law”—regardless of innumerable high-toned pronouncements and pledges of allegiance to liberty and justice for all—was a legal injustice system. It worked to create, codify and maintain racial oppression.
During the colonial and antebellum eras “the law” consigned the vast majority of eight generations of Africans and African Americans to permanent enslavement, and blacks who were not enslaved to a state of internal exile. That sin was affirmed by the Constitution of 1787. After the Civil War, Southern laws and Northern customs, which had the force of law, marooned blacks in a vast sea of cruelty for nearly another century.
That much progress has been made during the past seventy years in reforming “the law” is true. But it’s also a truism that is beginning to increasingly sound hollow, or worse, cynical.
That’s one inescapable conclusion, for example, of Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Her scalding examination of the astonishing growth of the Black prison population brings into sharp relief the fact that the enactment of the landmark civil rights laws of the 1960s, which officially enabled people of color to fully compete in American society, were within a decade followed by the “war on drugs” statutes that led to the warehousing of massive numbers of black and Latino Americans.
That’s also the inescapable conclusion of the systemic injustice that has followed innumerable police killings of unarmed black people in questionable circumstances in recent decades. Earlier this month, the Department of Justice released a report that stated that the Miami police department was beset by a pattern of excessive use of force, poor training and operational practices, and a lack of proper supervision and discipline. The agency had begun its investigation two years ago after Miami police officers shot to death seven young black males within an eight-month period. More broadly, the multimedia report of theroot.com, “Beyond Trayvon: Black and Unarmed,” documenting the deaths of 21 black males killed by police officers, is another simultaneously poignant and infuriating testament that neither complete innocence nor not being a threat to police officers or public safety guarantees blacks will survive an encounter with cops.
And now, a half-century after the zenith of the post-World War II black freedom struggle, blacks are besieged by retrograde Supreme Court decisions and Republican Party-sponsored legislation in numerous states that are trying to limit blacks’ access to the ballot box and to elite college and universities—two of the nation’s major pathways to socio-economic mobility.
These efforts to manipulate “the law” to once again leave black Americans unprotected are the broad expression of George Zimmerman’s attitude that he—who had no authority to do anything, but who had a gun on his hip—was empowered to stop a lone black teenager walking in Zimmerman’s (and, as it turned out Trayvon Martin’s father’s) neighborhood.
That perspective should remind us that the fundamental issue in the debate over racial profiling is as old as the European and African presence on these shores.
It’s the clash of the opposing forces of oppression and freedom.
None of the lame rationalizations for racial profiling—whether they come from high police officials seeking to boost their department’s prestige with a flood of empty statistics, or pundits exercising their own prejudices—can obscure that. The New York City police department’s own statistics about its stop-and-frisk program prove the program’s astonishing waste of resources. And Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen’s declaring his support for racial profiling while absolving himself of racism, offers a revealing, modern-day example of the “pragmatic racism” that enabled slavery and Jim Crow to thrive for so long.
The support for racial profiling doesn’t really rest on crime, as Cohen and his fellow enthusiasts claim. If it did, they’d support its use in the white suburban neighborhoods where many of the nation’s 70 percent of drug users live. No, racial profiling rests on the hues that mark black and brown people. Its purpose, like the attempts to narrow blacks’ voting rights and undermine affirmative action, is to limit their mobility—their freedom and opportunity.
For centuries, that legalizing of injustice was the real American creed. And it’s always been criminal.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is “Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.”
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 7 print edition.