"It is a real calamity, in this country, for any man, guilty or not guilty, to be accused of crime, but it is an incomparably greater calamity for any colored man to be so accused. Justice is often painted with bandaged eyes. She is described in forensic eloquence, as utterly blind to wealth or poverty, high or low, white or black, but a mask of iron, however thick, could never blind American justice, when a black man happens to be on trial."
-Frederick Douglass, Washington D.C., April 16, 1883, on the Twenty-first anniversary of the Emancipation in the District of Columbia.
The President's remarks on race Friday were remarkable for many reasons. Let me focus upon the one (and the only one) I feel qualified to discuss: Barack Obama was spot-on in his blunt and gloomy assessment of the racial disparities (still) inherent in the nation's criminal justice systems. He was even more insightful in reminding the rest of us about some of the ways in which those disparities contribute to the skepticism and frustration many minority citizens feel about the nation's unfulfilled dream of equal justice.
Here from his Friday remarks are the two relevant paragraphs:
The African-American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.
Now, this isn't to say that the African-American community is naive about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It's not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.
One could write a million words and still not plumb the depths of those disparities or their disheartening impact upon those whose lives they shape. For all the talk about a post-racial America, an era the President himself wisely has not announced as here, the unalterably sad truth is that 226 years after the Constitution was born our justice systems still don't uniformly deliver justice equally among the races. What the President is saying here, and what is undeniably true no matter how hard we might try to deny it, is that if you are black or Hispanic in America you very often get a different kind of "justice" than you do if you are white.