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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 7/22/13

The Killing of Trayvon Martin, the Dangers of Instant Profiling, and the Need To Protect Minority Rights

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Message William Barth

"Trayvon Martin could have been me thirty five years ago.'

US President Barack Obama  

Race alone is not enough to explain the outcome of the Martin Zimmerman trial. We need also to understand the plight of minority groups qua groups if we are to prevent future tragic killings. If the notion of human rights is to be at all meaningful, it is imperative both that we help African-Americans achieve parity with other groups and that we safeguard the existence and identity of minority groups in general.       

Skin color does not, by itself, explain the problems of minorities in America, even though many people certainly do view them simply through that lens. The white-versus-black paradigm has of course long been associated with the plight of African Americans. They have been profiled as a group since the nation's foundation, beginning with the enslavement of black Africans and continuing after 1865 by legal segregation.   

At the same time, however, the history of Latino and Asian immigrants and their descendants in America has shown clearly that the inequalities experienced by minorities cannot be explained in terms of racial characteristics alone. The reality is that some minority people of color actually out-perform the white majority in terms of key social indicators. For example, a recent study of Social and Demographic Trends by Pew Research confirms that the six largest Asian-American groups-- Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, and Filipino Americans-- outperform whites in both income levels and educational advancement.    This is not to belittle the seriousness of the discrimination that does take place against Asian-Americans, but only to demonstrate that anti-discrimination laws based on ethnic characteristics such as hair texture, skin color, or eye shape will never bring an end to minority inequality.

The Special Vulnerability of African-Americans

Ironically, George Zimmerman himself is the progeny of a Peruvian mother and white father, which also allows him to claim minority status as a person of color. However, stressing the ethnic characteristics of Zimmerman and Martin may actually serve to confuse rather than clarify the problems faced by minority groups, because each such group has unique historical experiences that define it. Some minorities have suffered horrific subjugation, while others have prospered even in the face of certain forms of discrimination.   

President Obama last Friday related in an impromptu press conference his own experience with profiling, so as to draw attention both to the dangers of racial profiling and the implications for it of so-called stand-your-ground gun laws. These statutes in America in reality pose a similar threat to African-Americans as do deportation policies in European countries that, under the guise of neutrally-applied migration-control laws, in fact systematically target encampments of the European Roma (so-called "Gypsies"). Even if unintentionally, stand-your-ground laws have a disproportionate impact on African-Americans, since, as demonstrated in the killing of Trayvon Martin, the accident of skin color makes them subject to instant profiling by individuals who feel intimidated by people who are different from themselves. President Obama's response is very much on-point. However, much more is needed in follow-up.

Human Rights Standards Must Protect All Minority Groups, Including African-Americans

The susceptibility of African Americans to instant negative profiling is a special issue that, particularly in view of "stand-your-ground" gun laws, demands urgent attention. At the same time, however, we must look to safeguard the rights of all minority groups, including African Americans, to their own cultural identity.

Human rights standards provide that states must take affirmative actions to protect the existence and identity of their minority groups. This principle was first established by the Permanent Court of International Justice of the League of Nations, in its Minority Schools in Albania Advisory Opinion (1935). The court's opinion was that all countries should provide equality-in-fact to minority groups, rather than merely a paper-equality in the form of anti-discrimination laws. Specifically, states should guarantee special protection for minority languages, religion, and education. According to the court, these protections are necessary to establish equilibrium for minority groups, since they are by their very nature at risk of losing their sense of self-identity to the cultural majority.

Contemporary human rights treaties encourage states to protect their minority cultures, defining such cultures by ethnic (inclusive of race), linguistic, religious, and national classifications. Studies have shown that special  protections are critical in helping minorities achieve social progress, especially in under-developed, post-colonial societies.

The lesson learned from these studies can also be applied to the special  minority status of African Americans, who were stripped of their historic cultural identity by a series of cataclysms. These, of course, included forced removal from cultural roots in Africa; enslavement in the New World; a cutting short of the African cultural inheritance through subsequent generations; post-Civil War Jim Crow legal segregation; and persistent, though moderating, racial bigotry to the present time. The loss of their once-rich cultural identity may help to explain the popularity for African Americans of black leaders such as the late Malcolm X, who emphasized the essential role of cultural development in building a contemporary African-American identity and strengthening black families. As shown by the latest research on minority behavior, the same cultural development is also a prerequisite for economic progress.  

I would describe African Americans, and certain other minority groups, such as the European Roma, as "special minorities." Such groups do not fit into traditional immigrant, national or indigenous categories. They also present a very real problem, because the states they inhabit are uncertain about what kind of policies can help them achieve parity with the majority population. Both African Americans and European Roma have suffered persecution, including periods of slavery, and both groups are popularly viewed as harboring a large criminal class.   

Given the recurrent negative profiling of blacks in America, it would seem that public discussion of the minority rights of African Americans should turn from a focus on simple anti-discrimination laws to an Afro-centric approach in which the question of cultural identity is paramount. Sadly, however, the primary vehicle today for addressing the place of blacks in American society is the criminal justice system. Blacks comprise nearly 40 percent of the country's total prison population, thereby transforming our jails into a perverted form of black social housing. Even worse, according to the Department of Justice, is the fact that nearly half of all homicide victims are black. That form of racial attrition, along with other social pathologies such as drug abuse and gang violence, is placing African-American group survival at risk.      

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Dr. William K. Barth's book is entitled, On Cultural Rights: The Equality of Nations and the Minority Legal Tradition (Boston, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2008). He received his doctorate from the Univeristy of Oxford.

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