Issues of racial discrimination and injustice are looming larger than they have in quite a while after a summer that has produced a “not guilty” verdict for George Zimmerman in the killing of unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin; the dismantling of the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act, which required jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to pre-clear voting changes with the federal government; the ushering in of a higher standard of scrutiny when viewing college Affirmative Action policies; and racial slurs by culinary icon Paula Deen.
In May of this year, shortly after the D.C. At-Large Council race, I penned an article for the Blade titled, “D.C. election shows need for dialogue on race.” While many people were open to the substance of the article, several others became quite defensive and wanted to ignore the subject. Major publications in the area gave significant print space or airtime to those who were appalled that a Council candidate discussed the role of race in the election, after being posed a direct question on the subject. It didn’t matter that the candidate’s answer was an attempt to acknowledge “the concerns of some residents who fear that their needs may not be adequately addressed if they don’t have somewhat proportionate representation on the Council,” as I pointed out in my earlier article.
Rather than delve into those sentiments and attempt to understand why a significant portion of the electorate feels this way, mainstream publications chose to silence those of us who expressed a need for a dialogue on race and sought to explain those sentiments by denying us a platform to express our views and tarnishing a good Councilwoman’s name.
Now, in the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict, the role that race plays in our country is starting to be discussed by individuals of all racial backgrounds, although many people still prefer to avoid the topic. Some of the people who attacked me for expressing the need for racial dialogue are now publicly championing the cause. It should not take a national tragedy (and yes, the killing of a promising child without recourse is a national tragedy) to raise an issue that many of us see every day and have publicly expressed, only to be met by comments that the election of Barack Obama as the first African-American president proves that we are now in “post-racial” times.
Whether it’s a young black man who gets pulled over for “driving while black,” a young black woman who gets followed around a trendy store, a black man who has people lock their doors when he walks by, an upwardly mobile black professional that gets his or her resume discarded when applying for a job with an ethnic name, or a black striver with solid credit who gets steered into a subprime mortgage when similarly situated white people are given traditional mortgages, many of us face this type of discrimination on a regular basis and don’t have the luxury to believe that race is not a factor in D.C. or in America.
These incidents color the lens from which we view the world and the lack of knowledge about the type of racism that African Americans face today, as well as having never faced these types of incidents first-hand, colors the lens from which other races view the world and the role that race plays in society.
This is important because when African Americans discuss race, we bring our collective experiences to the discussion. Thus, the sentiment not to discuss the subtext of race in a political campaign seems similar to the sentiment not to directly call Zimmerman’s suspicion of Trayvon Martin “racial profiling.” Not talking about the role race plays in a situation does not make it go away. Rather, it gives it a larger role in the minds of those who were not able to express their sentiments and have true dialogue on the issue. With notable racial disparities in income, health outcomes, safe communities, and access to quality K-12 education options, I am sure it will be fascinating to watch how everyone dances around topics of race in the upcoming mayoral race.
It was heartening to see 34 LGBT organizations sign onto a statement expressing solidarity with Trayvon Martin’s family and friends in the “fight for justice, civil rights and closure.” The line that stood out to me the most was, “[o]ur community has been targets of bigotry, bias, profiling and violence. We have expressed the heart-breaking despair of young people targeted for who they are, who they are presumed to be, or who they love.” I could not agree with this sentiment more. It is important for us all to recognize that all human rights struggles are related because only when everyone recognizes this relatedness will we see unprecedented progress in our collective quest for equality.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” still rings true today. Thus, we should all be outraged when a teenage boy cannot safely walk from the store to his father’s home without being stalked and killed. Similarly, we should all be outraged when a gay couple cannot walk down the street together, in some places, without being viciously assaulted. We cannot be content to celebrate the victories in the two Supreme Court marriage equality cases, without expressing outrage about the setbacks in the voting rights and affirmative action cases. Our quest for true equality depends on it.
Lateefah Williams is a writer, attorney and community activist in D.C. She is the immediate past president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the District’s largest LGBT political organization. Reach her at dcprogressivepotpourri.com or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her @lateefahwms.