Ky. Voices: Improved, yes, but not post-racial yet; Fight for basic rights no so long ago

Carolyn Miller-Cooper is the executive director of the Louisville Metro Human Relations Commission.
Carolyn Miller-Cooper is the executive director of the Louisville Metro Human Relations Commission.

There has been a groundswell of outrage, grief, and confusion on all points of the political and social spectrum over the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who pursued, confronted and killed a 17-year-old, unarmed black youth while he walked through a predominantly white Florida neighborhood on the way to his father's house.

President Barack Obama rightly said that the rule of law, as embodied by the jury's verdict, must be respected. Also right is the decision of the U.S. Justice Department to review the case for possible prosecution under federal civil-rights laws.

It is unrealistic, at best, to suggest that Trayvon Martin's death and Zimmerman's acquittal should be viewed as devoid of racial issues.

For untold numbers of blacks and people of goodwill, Martin's death serves as a bleak reminder that racism remains a threat to the principles of freedom and fair treatment that Americans hold so dear.

There remain many alive today who lived during a time when their children were not allowed to attend the same schools as white children.

They were denied access to the same stores, restaurants, hotels, civic organizations, social clubs, swimming pools, water fountains and restrooms as white people; they were not allowed to work at the same jobs or receive comparable pay as white people; they were hunted down and lynched for looking at a white woman; they were made to sit in the backs of public buses.

It seems likely, if not natural, that people who endured such degrading and humiliating racism would be justifiably outraged, hurt and confused at the acquittal of a white person who killed a black child who was merely walking through a neighborhood with nothing more substantial in his pockets than his identification, a phone and a pack of candy.

Obama observed, "I think it's important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away."

Many are still marked by the memories of marches, demonstrations and sit-ins that called for a chance at fair and equal treatment but were rewarded with bombings, beatings, tear gas, fire hoses, police dogs and assassinations of civil rights activists and leaders. Heavy prices have been exacted to reach the conditions concerning race that currently exist in the U.S.

How heart-wrenching that the nation is not further along by now. Perhaps many conditions have improved, but many African Americans are still waiting for the proof of improvement to be manifested in their own lives and in the lives of their families.

In Kentucky, African Americans comprise 8.1 percent of the population, yet make up 24 percent of the state prison population, and 14.4 percent of the state's unemployed. Nationally, according to FBI Hate Crime Statistics, 70 percent of all hate crimes in 2010 involved anti-black bias. Such statistics are evidence that, contrary to the pundits' proclamations, we do not live in a "post-racial" society.

The Kentucky Commission on Human Rights was established over 50 years ago to help end discrimination, and later became the state authority for enforcing the Kentucky Civil Rights Act.

The Louisville Metro Human Relations Commission and the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission are among four local city or county commissions that have authority to enforce their own civil rights ordinances. (Covington and Vicco also enforce civil rights ordinances.)

The Kentucky Civil Rights Act generally prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, familial status, sex, age or disability in employment, public accommodations, financial transactions and housing. In addition, the Louisville and Lexington commissions have local authority to pursue discrimination claims based on sexual orientation and gender identity (as do Covington and Vicco). The numbers of discrimination cases are significant every year.

Like so many others, the Kentucky, Louisville and Lexington commissions wish to express sympathy for the family and friends of Trayvon Martin. We acknowledge the related peaceful demonstrations throughout the state and hope that interracial communication and understanding will improve. We appeal for calm and respect for the rule of law.

Positive expressions of concern may include participation in community service programs that teach and practice nonviolent solutions to social and racial problems, practicing respect for others and rejecting the inclination to judge individuals by the stereotypes of their race, color, national origin, religion, familial status, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity.

We encourage legislatures across the country to revisit the wisdom of "stand your ground" laws which, more frequently than not, seem to encourage confrontation rather than self-defense.

Finally, we hope that everyone will come together as a community and unite against violence by remembering who we are, where we've been and how far we have to go.

About the authors: Carolyn Miller-Cooper, John J. Johnson and Ray Sexton are the executive directors of the Louisville Metro Human Relations Commission, the Kentucky Commission for Human Rights and the Lexington Fayette-Urban County Human Rights Commission, respectively.