By Mike Lillis - 07/31/13 08:45 AM EDT
House Democratic leaders launched an effort this week to curb racial discrimination in the nation’s criminal justice system, arguing that the current process treats minority groups unfairly.
The lawmakers are examining what Congress can do — if anything — to fight racial profiling, iron out sentencing disparities and rein in other deep-rooted biases they say plague both the legal process and the country as a whole.
The Zimmerman verdict has opened up a debate about race even as some participants in the trial downplayed it. President Obama earlier this month questioned what would have happened if Martin had been white or Zimmerman black.
Behind House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Democrats staged a public hearing on Tuesday to encourage a national conversation — both rare and uncomfortable — about racism in America.
“Racism is not simply about African-Americans. Racism is present in every one of our communities,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the chamber’s Democratic whip. “We need to be conscious of it; we need to confront it; we need to deal with it.”
Democrats on Tuesday steered mostly clear of advocating for specific policies, instead asking broader questions about Congress’s role in the race debate. Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, wondered, for instance, how much power Congress has to alter racist views.
“Most of us believe that it would be very difficult to legislate attitudes,” Becerra said. “While we can do things to protect people’s rights and freedoms, attitude is something different.”
But Maya Wiley, founder and president of the Center for Social Inclusion, argued that Congress can and should play a central role in fighting racial bias around the country. She argued that policymakers, “by legislating opportunity,” can “change how the attitudes are developed.”
Just hours earlier, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, introduced anti-profiling legislation that would bar law enforcement officers from targeting people based solely on race, gender or religion.
Although Martin was not killed by the police and there are differing opinions on whether he was profiled by Zimmerman, Conyers argued that “the issues of race and reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct are so closely linked in the minds of the public that his death cannot be separated from the law enforcement profiling debate.”
Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a former judge, is also eyeing direct action by Congress. The North Carolina Democrat, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, asked Tuesday about Washington’s powers to expunge court records so that those convicted of certain crimes are not dogged by separate charges of which they were never found guilty. Such records often discourage prospective employers, Butterfield said, and hamper the economic opportunities available to former criminals trying to transition back into society.
“That is a huge problem in minority communities across the country,” he said.
The killing of Martin, 17, in February 2012 has posed a dilemma for Obama, who has been reluctant to make race an issue throughout his White House tenure. Since the verdict, Obama has found himself walking a fine line between asserting confidence in the criminal justice system that acquitted Zimmerman and professing empathy for those who want the Justice Department to charge Zimmerman with civil rights crimes.
In a surprise press conference after the verdict, the nation’s first black president said “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” but he also suggested that the case is closed.
“Once the jury has spoken, that’s how our system works,” he said. “I know that [Attorney General] Eric Holder is reviewing what happened down there, but I think it’s important for people to have some clear expectations here. ... Law enforcement is traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.”
Appearing before the Democratic panel Tuesday, Morris Dees, founder and head of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group, said race was “clearly” a factor in Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal. He told the lawmakers that congressional efforts to take on racial profiling would go a long way to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
“Racial profiling is a secret hiding in public and America is becoming increasingly armed and dangerous,” Dees testified. “Those two things make for a recipe for disaster.”
Some Democrats used Tuesday’s forum to go after state “stand your ground” laws, which allow gun owners to use deadly force in certain cases when they feel threatened, even when there’s an opportunity to flee the confrontation.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) called such measures “a clear and present danger to every black man who’s walking in the streets today,” and urged Congress to go after the laws.
"With all of the energy in the air about Trayvon Martin … I don't see how, at this time next year, there's not been an effective movement, no matter where it gets, to do something about these stand-your-ground laws," Norton said. "It is a practical undertaking, just as crack cocaine was a practical undertaking, and because we would not let it go, we had some effect.
"If we keep talking about race and do not do something about it, even black people are not going to want to hear it."