President Obama last Friday related his own experience with profiling so as to draw attention to the dangers both of racial profiling and also the so-called stand-your-ground laws.  These statues have a similar effect in reality to European countries’ planning and camping legislation, which targets the European Roma (so-called Gypsies) under the guise of neutrally applied laws.

Stand-your-ground laws have a disproportionate impact on African Americans, who, as demonstrated by the killing of Trayvon Martin, can be profiled by anyone who feels intimidated at the presence of such a person.  President Obama’s response is very much on-point. However, much more is needed.

Human rights standards provide that states must take affirmative actions to protect the existence and identity of their minority groups.  This principal was first established by the Permanent Court of International Justice of the League of Nations, in its Minority Schools in Albania Advisory Opinion (1935).  The court’s opinion advised that countries provide equality-in-fact to minority groups, rather than merely a paper-equality in the form of anti-discrimination laws.  States had to ensure special protection for minority languages, religion, and education.   The court found that all of this was necessary in order to establish equilibrium for minority groups who found themselves in different situations from those in the majority. 

But more is needed to address the injustices faced by African Americans, the European Roma, and other groups that have suffered persecution, including periods of slavery, and that are viewed by the state as a largely criminal class.  What we need is to refocus the public discussion away from simple anti-discrimination laws toward an Afro-centric approach.  Sadly, at present it is the criminal justice system that, by default, has become the primary vehicle for addressing African American challenges.  Blacks comprise nearly 40% of the prison population, transforming jails into a socially perverted form of black social housing.  Even worse is the fact that, according to the Department of Justice, nearly one half of all homicide victims are black; which, along with other social pathologies such as drug abuse and gang violence, places African American group survival at- risk.

Trayvon Martin’s memory can be truly honored by a Federal inquiry similar to the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, or Kerner Report that examined causes and solutions to the so called African Americanrace-riots’ of the 1960s.  The Kerner Report’s recommendations were updated in the Eisenhower Foundation’s Millennium Breach Report by former Senator Fred Harris.   A similar blue-ribbon study is necessary to understand the injustices faced by African Americans, as well as to know how to remedy racial inequities.  Similar inquiries have been helpful in other countries such as Canada (through her Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples), as well as in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (through its High Commissioner on National Minorities Report on the situation of Roma and Sinti) both of which offer some positive suggestions for new policies to aid these minority groups.

A comprehensive understanding of the question is required if we are to remedy the violence and injustice faced by African Americans, who are affected by a complex array of problems from racial profiling and voter suppression to a slanted criminal justice system and only half- hearted affirmative action.  Unfortunately, it takes generations to untangle complex discriminatory regimes such as the formal segregation of African Americans.  Similar problems were encountered when reforming the reservation system for Aboriginal-Canadians.  Furthermore, even once abolished the discriminatory practices created by these regimes are passed down to future generations as social norms that makes racial profiling even more difficult to eradicate.

Nonetheless, Trayvon Martin’s parents deserve nothing less than a comprehensive inquiry to fight the structural injustice and violence faced by African Americans  in the United States.

 

Dr. William K. Barth is the author of On Cultural Rights, The Equality of Nations and the Minority Legal Tradition published by Martinus Nijhoff. He researched minority groups as an aspect of international human rights at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.


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