MLK and Race: The Ongoing Conversation

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The ACLU of Washington’s offices are graced with moving and inspiring photos, including many of our past clients. Occupying pride of place in the ACLU conference room, however, is a vintage photo of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, April 4, 2012, marks the 44th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination.

In the week that we reflect on Dr. King’s legacy, we have all too many reminders of the ongoing stain of America’s original sin of racism – from the issues raised by the killing of Trayvon Martin to the U.S. Supreme Court’s finding this week that the repeated strip searches of Albert Florence did not violate his constitutional rights. (Florence, an African-American man in New Jersey, was mistakenly arrested on an incorrect criminal warrant; during his incarceration he was twice subjected to extremely invasive strip searches. A trial court agreed that Florence’s civil rights had been violated, but the U.S. Supreme Court, in yet another 5-4 decision, disagreed.)

And the curious episode of the “Hunger Games tweets” is a vivid illustration that racial ignorance is not solely the province of an aging demographic of people raised in an era when prejudiced comments in public were widely tolerated. (Just check out an episode of “Mad Men” to get the flavor of that thankfully bygone time.)  A Canadian fan of the popular book and movie noted a disturbing trend on Hunger Games fan sites and Twitter feeds, “readers who could not believe—or accept—that Rue and Thresh, two of the most prominent and beloved characters in the book, were black, had been posting vulgar racial remarks.” A typical comment: “I was pumped about the Hunger Games. Until I learned that a black girl was playing Rue,” wrote @JohnnyKnoxIV. The clever fan put together a Tumblr feed filled with screen shots of the thoughtless and crude comments.

Here in Washington state you don’t have to look far to find examples of racial bias in society and in the criminal justice system in particular. Take, for instance the disparity in arrest rates for cannabis use between whites and African Americans – despite the fact that usage rates in the two populations are virtually identical.

Last year, the Washington Supreme Court examined a case (State v. Monday) in which a white prosecutor mimicked the voice of black witnesses and asserted during closing argument that “Black folk don’t testify against black folk.”  The Court issued a strongly worded opinion that appeals to racial bias undermine the fundamental right to a fair trial.

In addition, a growing body of social science research is demonstrating not only the fallibility of eyewitness identification in criminal cases, but also that the race of witnesses as well as that of alleged criminals may affect the accuracy of a witness’s testimony. In a case in which ACLU-WA and a number of other social justice organizations submitted briefs, the Washington State Supreme Court recently heard argument on the issue.

Pundits and politicians have for decades issued calls for a “national dialogue on race.” The reality is that Americans have many such conversations every day. And a look at the comments section of any online news story on race and justice issues shows that they are often shamefully ugly. The realities that incidents such as the Hunger Games tweets illustrate are sobering. Yet they also provide “teachable moments” to remind all of us that despite talk of a “post-racial America,” we still have a long way to go. And a lot more talking to do.