WASHINGTON -- Emotions ran high at the inaugural meeting of the Congressional Caucus on Black Men and Boys on Wednesday, as participants discussed ways to protect and invest in black males amid a renewed focus on race and racial profiling in the United States following the trial of George Zimmerman.
Much of the focus of Wednesday's meeting was on how to prevent another tragedy like the killing of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager shot by Zimmerman in 2012 as he walked home in Sanford, Fla. Just over a week ago, the jury found Zimmerman not guilty on charges of murder and manslaughter, sparking protests across the country and setting the stage for a national debate on race relations. The decision even prompted President Barack Obama to deliver unprecedented remarks about his personal history with racial bias.
Martin's father, Tracy Martin, served as the meeting's guest of honor and made an impassioned plea for a statute or amendment named for his son that would circumvent future incidences of racial profiling.
"Let's not let a not guilty verdict dictate what our youth legacy becomes. Fifty years from now when I'm dead and gone, I would like to see that Trayvon Martin's name is attached to some type of statute or amendment that says you can't simply profile our children, shoot them in the heart, kill them and say that you were defending yourself," Martin said.
"The question is, what can we do as parents, what can we do as African-American men, to assure our kids that you don't have to be afraid to walk outside your house, go to the store, get a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea and make it to your home," he added. "And next time your parents see you, they're dressed in white at a funeral."
Martin also praised the president for weighing in on his son's death, highlighting in particular Obama's statement that Trayvon could have been him 35 years ago.
"The point that President Obama made ... was so important to the American people because obviously the most influential man on the planet is weighing in from an African American's perspective," he said. "It's moments and comments such as the president made that sparks the conversation in every household."
But simply having a conversation is not enough, attendees argued. A number of policy prescriptions were put forward that would address a variety of problems faced by racial minorities, including poor education standards and high rates of crime.
David Johns, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, said the Obama administration wished to serve as a partner in creating opportunities for all children, regardless of their "zip code or skin tone."
Johns placed priority on early childhood investment and expanding funding for Head Start programs -- which were incidentally gutted this year by federal budget cuts known as sequestration. He ran through a list of troubling statistics to underscore the minority achievement gap that poses "the difference between a pathway that leads to the White House and one that leads to the jailhouse." African Americans have an infant mortality rate of 13.2 percent compared to 5.3 percent for whites; the poverty rate for black children is 36 percent, three times the rate for white children; there are significantly lower scores among black babies, at 24 months of age, on cognizant assessments; and at age 4, only 28 percent of black children have proficiency in letter, number and shape recognition, compared to more than 70 percent of white children.
Speakers also raised the issue of Stand Your Ground laws and their application across racial lines, perhaps the biggest policy debate to stem from Martin's death and the Florida jury's not guilty verdict. One suggestion was to amend the law to explicitly state that the defender cannot be the aggressor, that is, cannot initiate the fight, as Zimmerman was perceived by many to have done.
Approximately 30 states have a version of Stand Your Ground laws in place, with the Florida state legislature facing the most scrutiny to repeal its law following the conclusion of the Zimmerman case. It's unclear what role Congress might play at a federal level -- the Senate will hold a hearing on Stand Your Ground in September, but only a handful of lawmakers have openly expressed their interest in revisiting the laws.
The group was nonetheless hopeful that meaningful action could be taken to address the concerns of the African-American community, because those changes were once again being demanded across streets nationwide.
"The loss of 17-year-old Travyon has focused attention on black males as nothing else has in decades," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), co-chair of the caucus.
"These children are angry. They have a whole in their hearts for all kinds of sociological issues that impact black boys," said Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.). "I'm hoping today when we leave this room, we leave with a commitment that these boys are not to be feared, but that they are to be loved."