On April 2, 2012, the Community Alliance of Lane County hosted a Justice for Trayvon Martin rally at the Wayne Morse Plaza in downtown Eugene. ACLU of Oregon co-sponsored the event which called for an end to racial profiling. Here is the speech that Claire Syrett, Field Director for ACLU of Oregon, gave at the rally.
I want to thank the Community Alliance of Lane County for organizing this vigil and for all the important work that the Back to Back program does in our community. I am grateful to have this opportunity to speak on behalf of the ACLU of Oregon about the Trayvon Martin case which has sparked such a strong reaction across the country.
I want to be clear that the ACLU is not seeking to pass judgment on George Zimmerman – we are not in a position to know all the facts in this case. We are pleased that there is a special prosecutor investigating, and it is up to the federal and Florida state authorities to decide whether or not to charge Mr. Zimmerman with a crime. If he is charged with a crime, he should be afforded the full criminal due process rights we all expect of our criminal justice system, including that he is assumed to be innocent unless proven otherwise.
The facts of what happened that night in Sanford, Florida are still to be determined, but the story of Trayvon Martin’s death offers an important opportunity to consider the issue of racial profiling and the hard reality that people of color face every day – the fact that they are viewed with suspicion and even fear as they go about their daily lives.
Whether it’s an adult stopped by police for “driving while black or brown”, or a child of color in school being punished more harshly than his white classmate for the same offense, or the person of Middle Eastern descent finding they cannot board their flight because they have been placed on a secret government list – ordinary Americans are routinely singled out for unjust treatment based on their perceived racial and ethnic identity.
Another reality of racial profiling and discrimination is the fact that many people – mostly white people – don’t want to talk about or acknowledge it. This is one of the reasons that the ACLU of Oregon has decided to speak up in this case in spite of the ongoing investigation.
There is continual pressure to ignore white privilege, to believe that racial prejudice is imagined by those on the receiving end and that, perhaps most damaging, if they just acted or dressed properly, people of color – and African Americans in particular – wouldn’t be targeted. In other words, the historical tendency in this country has been to blame the victim.
Racial profiling is real and it harms people every day. Not only does it harm the individuals targeted; it harms all of us by extension:
• when our law enforcement is focused on stopping and investigating innocent people instead of actual criminals;
• when children of color are disproportionately punished at school and routed into the criminal justice system instead of college;
• when our drug laws are set up to discriminate and fill our prisons with grossly disproportionate numbers of African Americans and people of color in general.
Racial profiling harms all of us. We all pay a price in lost potential, lost tax dollars and an erosion of our democracy. We cannot truly be an equitable and democratic society while so many of us struggle against these daily injustices. African Americans, Native peoples, Latinos, people of Middle Eastern descent, Asians and Pacific Islanders cannot achieve full participation in our society if they cannot move about their daily lives free from unwarranted suspicion and scrutiny.
The ACLU believes our laws, our police and our courts play a critical role in combating racial inequality. We also recognize that these institutions reflect the attitudes of our wider society; the attitude of a historically-dominant white culture. Without a shift in that culture, our institutions will continue to fail us when it comes to racial justice.
We should demand that Congress pass the End Racial Profiling Act which would ban the use of racial profiling by law enforcement and offer agencies tools and training to engage in more effective law enforcement practices. But we need to do more in our daily lives as well.
It is up to each of us, no matter our race, to question our own assumptions, to challenge ourselves to step up and admit our prejudices and fears, to speak with our families, friends and co-workers about these issues, and – most importantly – to believe our friends and colleagues of color when they share their stories of being profiled, whether by the department store clerk, the police or a stranger on the street.
It is urgent that we keep this conversation going locally and nationally. I hope you will join the ACLU, the NAACP and others in this work. Only together can we break down our prejudice and build a more just, fair and equitable community.