By Stephanie Jones
In the midst of the anger and disappointment at the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, I sought a glimmer of hope and first found it, paradoxically, in the reaction to the verdict among people of all races. That glimmer was brightened ever-so-slightly later that week when two members of Congress – one Black, one White, one a Democrat, one a Republican – stood together in an effort to salvage the Voting Rights Act.
And then the president of the United States took to his bully pulpit and laid it on the line.
When President Obama waded into the swirl of pain and frustration unleashed by the not guilty verdict in the killing of the unarmed Black teenager, he folded his own personal experience into the mix, and then helped chart a course for moving forward together through our nation’s churning racial waters. And he reminded us that, despite the obstacles, hurdles and stumbles, despite the outrageous injustices that threaten to drag us backward, we are making progress in our journey toward racial equality and understanding.
This progress was apparent in the initial reaction to the verdict in the Zimmerman case. Unlike the response to the verdict in another racially-charged murder case, 1995 acquittal of O.J. Simpson, the lines in the reaction to this case were not so distinctly drawn. That is not to say there was no racial divide. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 86 percent of Blacks disapproved of the verdict and only 31 percent of Whites opposed it; 51 percent of Whites approved the decision.
But, unlike in the O.J. case, the protests against the Zimmerman verdict were not monochromatic. In fact, they looked very much like America with Black, Brown, White, Asian, Hispanic, men, women, old and young taking to the street to raise their voices against this injustice.
A few days after the verdict, another small ray of hope emerged, during a Senate Judiciary Committee. The first witnesses, Rep. John Lewis, a Black Democrat and revered civil rights leader, and Rep. James Sensenbrenner, the Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee who helped shepherd the 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act through to passage, appeared side-by-side urged the Senate Judiciary Committee to repair the damage that the Roberts Supreme Court had wreaked on the right to vote.
During his testimony, Rep. Lewis strayed slightly from his prepared remarks to refer to Rep. Sensenbrenner as “my friend, my brother.” When Rep. Sensenbrenner finished his testimony – a full-throated support for voting rights in general and the Voting Rights Act in particular – Rep. Lewis turned to him, warmly shook his hand, and whispered softly, “Thank you. Thank you.”
For the first time since the wretched Shelby decision, it seemed that we might actually be able to rescue the Voting Rights Act from the Roberts Court. It will be a long, difficult fight and a positive outcome is not assured, but this was a good first step.
Coming just two days after Reps. Lewis’ and Sensenbrenner’s testimony, President Obama, perhaps the first time in his presidency, he spoke to America as an African American. He painted a stark portrait of what too many refuse to believe: that in this America, millions of Blacks – including the president himself – are suspected of being dangerous, of being criminals, of being “other” for no reason other than our hue.
In explaining in clear, logical and often personal terms the context against which African Americans view Trayvon Martin’s killing, President Obama gently guided a large audience toward a better understanding that a perspective different from the majority view is not wrong – but it, in fact, has merit and should be understood and respected.
But he didn’t just speak of his own experiences; he went a step further and urged all Americans to honestly examine our own views and attitudes and interactions, and then to reach out to one another to find common ground. And then he offered us that ray of hope, reminding us that, while we might not be where we need to be or want to be as a nation, we are certainly not where we once were.
“[A]s difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better,” the president said. “Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn’t mean that we’re in a post-racial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated . . . [but] along this long, difficult journey, you know, we’re becoming a more perfect union — not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” In recent weeks, that arc seemed to swing wildly in the wrong direction, pushed by human forces in our midst but beyond our control. But we can take heart in the fact that countless of our fellow Americans – including President Obama and people of all races and backgrounds – understand our story, feel our pain, share our mission and are committed to helping bend the arc further and further, little by little, back toward justice and closer to the more perfect union.
Stephanie Jones is president of Stephanie Jones Strategies, a Washington, D.C. public affairs firm. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.