By Elizabeth Wong, Associate DirectorWhen it comes to race relations, I cannot deny that America has come very far since the 1950s. Thanks to Civil Rights-era legislation and litigation, we’ve seen huge advances towards equal access to public accommodations, equal education opportunities, fair housing, interracial marriage, and the right to vote. However, recent events in Virginia and Florida show us that there’s still much farther to travel on our path towards racial equality and inclusion.
I have two stories to tell that highlight the continuing need to fight for equality in our criminal justice system. One – the story of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida – you almost certainly know about. The other—the story of Marcelle Castillo in Spotsylvania County—you probably don’t. Both, though, are about African-Americans who faced discrimination and injustice for simply being in the “wrong” place—essentially, walking while black.
Thanks to the persistence of minority and social media, Martin’s story now dominates mainstream news outlets. It is a tragic tale of a young, unarmed African-American teenager who was shot to death by a self-proclaimed neighborhood watch volunteer who thought Martin looked “suspicious” for walking in his gated community in Sanford, Florida. Local police neither arrested nor filed charges against Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, who has claimed self defense.
As more details come to light, the situation only looks worse. The local police department apparently has a history of race-related incidents. According to Mother Jones, in 2006, the son of a Sanford police officer and a volunteer for the department killed a black teen with a single gunshot to his back, but neither was charged. And in 2010, the son of a Sanford lieutenant punched a homeless black man, but officers on the scene released him without charges.
If justice is to be served, Trayvon Martin’s case requires additional investigation; not only into his death, but also into the police department’s handling of the case. Police Chief Bill Lee said that the police had conducted a “color blind investigation.” But as Dr. Joyce Hamilton-Henry of the ACLU of Florida said in her remarks at Tuesday’s rally in Sanford, “Justice is supposed to be blind. Investigators should not be.”
Virginia has its own story of “walking while black,” though it fortunately had a far less tragic ending. Marcelle Castillo used to park her car and take regular walks in a wealthy, predominantly white neighborhood in Spotsylvania County. One night, she was confronted by several men who lived in the neighborhood, during which time a police officer drove by. The officer assured her she was allowed to park her car on the public street while she took her walk on the neighborhood’s public sidewalks.
Homeowners subsequently posted no trespassing signs on their yards, and while she avoided walking by those homes, she continued walking on other streets in the neighborhood. Castillo was ultimately cited for trespassing while walking on a public street, an outrageous and indefensible charge that could only happen to a black person in a white neighborhood.
The ACLU of Virginia represented Castillo and the charges were dropped. At the end of the day Castillo was vindicated, but she never should have been charged in the first place.
Sadly, Martin’s and Castillo’s stories are not isolated incidents, but rather a disturbing and discouraging fact of life for African-Americans.
The Sentencing Project reports that African-Americans comprise 13% of the general population, but are 38% of the prison and jail inmate population. A black male born in 2001 has a 32% chance of spending time in prison at some point in his life; a white male has a 6% chance. “While African-American youth represent 17% of their age group within the general population, they represent 46% of juvenile arrests, 31% of referrals to juvenile court, and 41% of waivers to adult court.” At every step in the criminal justice system, African-Americans are overrepresented.
In sharing a link about Trayvon Martin’s case on Facebook, a Jamaican-American friend confessed that she was not happy when her ultrasound technician informed her she’d be having a boy. She knows what he faces is a society that is both afraid of and prejudiced against young black men.
The Trayvon Martin scenario is every mother’s worst nightmare, and made all the worse when the reason for a child’s death is something as senseless as the color of his skin.
Few white mothers (and Asians, I imagine because we are stereotyped as non-threatening, model minorities) ever consider the added burden of raising boys in our society as black mothers do. They go through additional lessons from some unwritten handbook of how to raise African-American sons in America, telling them how to behave in public, not just out of a sense for societal decorum, but for survival.
It is unfair that African-Americans continue to be unfairly treated in our society, which prides itself on the rule of law, equality, and justice for all. It is unfair that African-American parents have the added burden of teaching their children about racial discrimination, particularly when it’s perpetrated by officers of the law, who should be there to serve and protect them as well.
Since the 1920s, the ACLU has been there to defend and advance civil rights and racial equality, and we will continue to fight the unfairness today and every day.
If you are a victim of racial profiling or feel you have been discriminated against because of your race or ethnicity, please contact us at intake[at]acluva.org.