A Florida jury’s acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin has sparked protests around the nation and a highly personal statement from President Obama. One of the protesters’ demands is for an investigation of whether Trayvon Martin’s killing violated federal civil rights laws, and the U.S. Justice Department is reportedly investigating that possibility.
While that process moves forward, there is much more that all of us can do to prevent future tragedies like this one, and to move America toward a more perfect union. It’s time to turn outrage into profound and lasting action.
While the jury’s verdict has catalyzed the most recent protests, almost every aspect of the case has raised concern: the fact that young Trayvon was so quickly and automatically considered a suspect by George Zimmerman; the failure of Sanford, Florida police to immediately arrest Zimmerman in the wake of the homicide; the reckless Stand Your Ground laws in Florida and 21 other states that support unnecessary killings when escape is safely possible; the prosecutors’ mishandling of the case—including a profound misunderstanding of the role of race; and the widely differing perceptions of the case’s implications by Americans of different backgrounds.
Fortunately, practical solutions exist to address each of these issues in nationally and in communities around the country. And there are concrete actions that each of us can take to push for transformative change. The Opportunity Agenda offers practical tools and resources to support the call for equality, justice, and understanding:
End Racial Profiling. The same racial biases at work in the Trayvon Martin case lead to thousands of unjust police stops, humiliating searches, illegitimate arrests, and unjustified shootings of young black men and others by law enforcement in communities around the country. A lack of effective federal laws, combined with local policies like New York City’s flawed “stop-and-frisk” practices, have the effect of encouraging those abuses. Use our messaging recommendations to push for just solutions, including the federal End Racial Profiling Act and state and local “Trayvon’s Laws.” Clear rules outlawing racial profiling, combined with training for officers, clear guidelines and accountability, and a focus on evidence instead of stereotypes, has been shown to reduce bias, protect public safety and promote equal justice under law. Find your members of Congress here and call for an end to racial profiling.
- Stop Distorted Media Depictions of Black Men and Boys. Over a decade of research compiled by The Opportunity Agenda shows that the mass media—news outlets, Hollywood entertainment, music videos, video games, and other programming—paint a distorted and negative picture of African-American men and boys that influences attitudes towards them, as well as their own self-perceptions. By over-associating Black males with crime and violence—far out of proportion to factual reality—these media depictions foster negative stereotypes and influence behavior by police officers, employers, and the larger public. Use our communications strategies to push for more accurate and balanced depictions, and share the research with others. In the coming weeks, we’ll be supporting the creation of Community Media Justice Teams to monitor media depictions and push for accurate, balanced coverage of Black males’ lives.
- Build Understanding and Support. Differing reactions to the Zimmerman prosecution and verdict are just the most recent reminder that Americans tend to think and talk past each other when it comes to questions of racial or ethnic discrimination. In particular, many Americans are unaware of the continuing influence of racial bias in our nation, many fail to understand modern forms of discrimination like implicit bias and institutional inequity, and still others see racial injustice but believe that nothing can be done about it. Our popular resource, Ten Lessons for Talking About Racial Equity in the Age of Obama, helps to bridge that divide and build public support for promoting equal opportunity.
- Repeal Stand Your Ground Laws. While the defense did not invoke Florida’s Stand Your Ground law in the Zimmerman trial, those laws (which empower people to kill others whom they find threatening even when safely running away is an option) affect individuals’ behavior and police and prosecutorial decisionmaking, as well as jury verdicts. Join the effort by colorofchange.org to end Stand Your Ground and other “Shoot First” laws.
As we honor Trayvon Martin’s life and call for justice in his death, we must make his legacy one of broad and lasting change—to our criminal justice system, to our mass media, and to the way we treat each other as human beings. Sign up for tools and resources from The Opportunity Agenda to make that change a reality.