It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that every black American and every white American knows, in their hearts, the truth of President Obama’s extraordinary comments on race in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case. Perhaps somewhere there’s a place where black men don’t have “the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars,” as Obama described it; there may also be places where white women never clutch their purses when alone in an elevator with an unfamiliar young black man. But these patterns of learned responses, their causes and effects, should be understandable to almost all black people and white people. And they rightly should be fodder for the type of national conversations envisioned by Obama — from private discussions in homes, schools, and churches to the public questioning of criminal-justice policies.
In many ways, the United States has moved beyond the “can’t we all just get along” dialogue of the early ’90s. Today, most Americans of varying backgrounds can indeed get along, but old suspicions still mark certain policies and behaviors. The Martin case, along with troves of statistics and anecdotes from other cases, raises the simple question of whether criminal-justice policies are applied fairly. Martin, a black 17-year-old, was shot to death by a half-Latino neighborhood watch volunteer who got out of a car and followed him, sparking a confrontation; the volunteer, George Zimmerman, claimed self-defense and was acquitted of murder and manslaughter.