I grew up in a middle-class, suburban county in New Jersey, but now I'm a twenty-something intern living in a low-income part of Washington, D.C. The realtor euphemism for such neighborhoods is “transitional,” a word that implies ongoing change. This is ironic because I feel that so many of the residents here feel as though things will never change, and will always stay the same. Since moving here, I've already become accustomed to the wail of sirens, the disconcerting, yet reassuring pulse of blue and red light through the heavy bars on my windows.
Around four weeks ago, I was sitting on my front steps, watching as a group of neighborhood kids – black and Latino – played tag by orange lamplight in our fenced-in common area. The night was humid and calm, until –
Was that a car backfiring? Early Independance Day fireworks? But the children all screamed and hastened across the quad through the open doorway of my building. Gunshots. I was humbled and sad; they had instinctively apprehended what I had not. And they were so young.
The police arrived within twenty minutes. The officer who spoke to us was kind, yet the children mutely shuffled their feet in response to his questions. They were sullen and uncooperative which, at the time, surprised me.
Three weeks later, it seemed like no one in my neighborhood was shocked by the Zimmerman verdict when it was handed down. Like President Obama, each of us could also recall a moment when we had been profiled, pulled over, taken aside, questioned, or threatened by police officers, security guards, or shopkeepers because of the color of our skin. We don’t have to share our stories to know we’ve shared those kinds of experiences. One study exploring the issue in New York City from 2009 found that African Americans and Latinos were nine times more likely than caucasians to be stopped by the police. More African-American and Latino criminals are apprehended. Law-abiding individuals of color drive their cars with greater uneasiness, conscious now that their potential criminality is a function of others, of prejudices.
And, once within the criminal justice system, African-Americans and Latinos are subject to especially harsh sentencing compared to other populations of offenders. In cases where the victim is a minority, like Trayvon Martin, justice is not meted out equally; defendants with African-American victims receive less severe penalties than similarly-situated defendants with white victims. I know these things because I’ve read them. My neighbors know these things because they have experienced them or heard stories from family, friends, and friends of friends. They have understanding, not statistics. As President Obama stated in his speech about the death of Trayvon Martin, it is a tragedy felt most acutely by the African-American community; the verdict, however, represents an issue that affects all minorities.
We are singled out as criminals and less protected as victims. As a result, often we are less inclined to cooperate with law enforcement and have less reverence for the law. Thus, among targeted communities within minority populations, the American criminal justice system faces a crisis of legitimacy.
Like my neighbors, I felt weary after the Zimmerman verdict – cynical of our system which aspires to vindicate justice as it perpetuates other injustices. I remember the kids’ faces in the lamplight that night as they were being questioned. So young, I thought, and so hostile. They grow up habituated to violence; they learn to distrust the system, they reject the system, and finally, they become victims of the system.
Despite the violence in this neighborhood, Rosa, who lives in the apartment across from mine, dresses her twin boys in their best, cleanest clothes every Sunday morning. I see families, sometimes, walking to church in a happy procession, and I hear them from my window, making joyful noise. A rhapsody of hope.
Rosa puts her faith in God, she tells me, not the justice system.