Trayvon and the Unfinished Business of Civil Rights

By Nathan Paulsen
Jul 16, 2013

With the murder of Trayvon Martin, a wake-up call has sounded. A boy like other boys - with family and friends, hopes for the future and a sweet tooth – Trayvon had his one life stolen from him because of the color of his skin. His blackness led him to be suspected, and stalked, and run down trying to escape his pursuer, only to have a bullet tear through his beating heart, the life bled from him in a matter of minutes.

An innocent boy making his way home from a corner store.

It happens every hour of every day in every community across this country. The white power structure – and those of us who support it by indifference – has criminalized tens of millions of our Black and Brown neighbors. Almost 150 years after Emancipation, racial oppression remains the shame of our nation.   

The death of Trayvon Martin and acquittal of his killer is symptomatic of much larger social questions that remain unresolved more than 40 years after cornerstone Civil Rights legislation became law. Despite official legal equality, youth of color continue to face a wide array of systemic barriers that prevent flourishing. High infant mortality rates mean many children of color never see their first birth day. Those who do survive are disproportionately raised in areas of concentrated poverty with unemployment, homelessness, pollution, discrimination, and gang warfare.

Neglecting the obvious need for wide scale social change, leaders of the two dominant parties tinker with small details while leaving the systemic issues at the root of racial oppression intact. Failing to create political will for positive reforms that might bring hope to masses of people of color, billions of tax-dollars are instead invested to beef up police forces and build prisons. 

Criminalizing and repressing. Adding insult to injury.

Consider a few of the more widely available statistics: At over 2.2 million prisoners, the United States is the most incarcerated population per capita in the entire world. If you are Black or Latino, you are six and three times, respectively, more likely to be incarcerated than a white person. More than one in ten Black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars. Almost eight percent of all Blacks in the United States are legally barred from voting as the result of felony disenfranchisement laws.

In my home state of Minnesota – a bastion of the liberal North - the picture is even grimmer. Minnesota is among our nation's worst states in terms of racial disparities in incarceration. In a recent opinion piece, Judge Lucy Weiland noted that “90 percent of the juveniles locked up in the Hennepin County Detention Center are juveniles of color.

According to studies conducted by the Racial Disparities Initiative, Blacks are disproportionately stopped by police and searched in every single Minnesota County. In Minnesota, Blacks are 15 times more likely to be cited or arrested for a low level offense. Despite equal usage rates, Blacks are 8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts. In 2000 – the last year for which I could find statistics - a staggering 44 percent of all Black males in Hennepin County between 18 and 30 were arrested, with approximately 80 percent of those arrests made for nonperson crimes. American Indians and Latinos don’t fare much better.

Unemployed at more than three times the rate of whites, the Twin Cities also happens to be home to the biggest unemployment gap between Blacks and whites of all major metro areas in the United States. Additionally, Minnesota has one of the largest education achievement gaps in the country.    

All the evidence points in the same direction. White supremacy has a brutally simple plan for people of color: It is to impoverish, beat, imprison and murder, ruthlessly, daily, without remorse. No place is safe - not even areas politically dominated by the Democratic Party machine.

The public silence that has met the criminalization of youth of color, and our nation's rapidly expanding "prison industrial complex," is one of the more appalling facts of modern life.

No, the death of Trayvon Martin was not an aberration. His murder goes to the heart of a pervasive racial injustice that tarnishes our democratic ideals and tears at the fabric of our country.

Now, with hundreds of thousands marching in the streets, our silence is over.

We will not be complacent as another generation is wasted away behind bars, or murdered by racist police and gun toting neighborhood watch leaders. We will birth a new Civil Rights Movement to upend the destructive system of mass incarceration and economic dispossession, and bring freedom to all.  

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

I have worked in human services for much of the past decade; during that time, I acquired an intimate viewpoint on the suffering that structural violence causes in the everyday life of our nation. In writing for War Times, I am particularly concerned with how the United States military machine – consuming hundreds of billions of tax-dollars on an annual basis to wage war and export death – has left us with fewer resources at home for health care, public education, affordable shelter, living wage jobs, domestic violence shelters, and other critical social needs.

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