Following the lead of President Obama, who spoke candidly last week about the realities of racial discrimination, members of the Congressional Black Caucus on Monday night held an emotional and rare discussion on racial inequality in America. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who led the conversation, said the goal was to guarantee every person, regardless of race, has a fair shot at the “American Dream.”
“We’ve come a long way in this country, as President Obama acknowledged in his remarks a few days ago,” said Jeffries, a New York Democrat, on msnbc Tuesday. “But we, of course, still have a ways to go. And we should use this moment not to talk at each other, but to talk with each other.”
Of particular focus in Monday’s dialogue, said Jeffries, was the unequal rate at which black men are entangled in the criminal justice system. According to the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group, 10% of black males in their thirties are in prison or jail on any given day–a percentage far greater than those of their white and Latino counterparts.
Obama touched on this issue Friday when in surprise remarks from the White House, he publicly identified with a Florida teenager, who many feel was let down by the justice system.
“Trayvon Martin could have been me–35 years ago,” said the president, who went on to articulate some of the reasons why Martin’s death has had such a deep impact on the African-American community.
“There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed while they were shopping at a department store,” Obama said. “That includes me.”
George Zimmerman, 29, was found not guilty in last year’s shooting death of Martin, an unarmed, black teenager. Zimmerman’s legal team maintains he shot Martin in self defense, and that race played no role in his actions.
Since the verdict was handed down, thousands have rallied across the country demanding changes to the criminal justice system, state gun laws, and the way in which lawmakers handle issues related to race. Jeffries said Monday night’s discussion will hopefully be a step toward satisfying those demands.
“There is a real problem that we have to confront in America as it relates to the inequality within the criminal justice system,” said Jeffries on msnbc Tuesday. “We acknowledge the problem of black on black violence…But we also have to acknowledge that African-Americans are more likely to be charged, arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced for the same crime in a way that other communities aren’t treated.”
Editor’s note: George Zimmerman has sued NBC Universal for defamation. The company strongly denies the allegation.