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.
The fear of young black males — whether by whites, other blacks, or people of other races — has plainly led to disparities in areas ranging from application of the death penalty, to sentencing guidelines for drug crimes, to the “stand your ground” laws that appear to give license to shooters who target perceived criminals based on fear alone. Obama posed a relevant question: Had Martin been armed and shot Zimmerman for following him, would that have been justified? If Americans find the answer to that question to be “at least ambiguous,” as Obama put it, then our laws may need re-examining.
That some of these policies, or the ways they’re applied, are rooted in statistically accurate perceptions that young black males are disproportionately involved in the criminal-justice system doesn’t make them right. The justice system exists to address individuals, not racial groups. Americans as a whole can learn from black fellow citizens who are deeply aware of the toll that violence takes in their own communities — and are skeptical of black leaders who fail to acknowledge it — but nevertheless insist on fair treatment for all.
Many Americans, of course, are neither black nor white. They shouldn’t be bystanders to these conversations. Perceptions of various groups, and their own propensities for crime or victimhood, are a concern for every American of any race. Obama showed real courage not only in encouraging a fair, open discussion, but in sharing his personal experiences as a black man who felt stereotyped and diminished by white people’s fears of crime. He also deserves credit for pointing out another truth that should be obvious to all Americans: “Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race.” America is big enough, in experience and character, to seize this moment for contemplation of race and justice — and make it an occasion for healing.