Peniel E. Joseph: Trayvon, Race and American Democracy

tags: racism, The Root, Peniel E. Joseph, George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin



Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton Fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published next year by Basic Books. He can be reached online at penielejoseph.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Trayvon Martin's senseless death and his killer George Zimmerman's recent acquittal have roused the nation from its perpetual slumber regarding race matters, inspiring nonviolent protests that have run the gamut from old-fashioned street demonstrations to more technologically innovative dissent through social media.

It has been an impressive show of unity, the marches of last year and, more recently, the impromptu displays of grief and outrage on the streets of many American cities. But although rallies are important, we can best honor Trayvon's memory by organizing a sustained and national conversation about race and democracy in the 21st century -- one that leads to substantive public-policy transformation.

It's a conversation that needs to take place in America's civic spaces, libraries, churches, schools and community centers, and one that needs the involvement of citizens from all segments of society. Elected officials and political leaders need to actively participate in this dialogue rather than hide behind the safety of written statements or silence.

Why is this so important? Because debates about the racial symbols lurking behind this tragedy only scratch the surface of a larger conversation about race and democracy in American society. Despite racism's crucial role in forging the republic, we remain reluctant to convene a critical and intellectually informed dialogue about race matters. The paucity of a historically based dialogue on national race relations allowed for a stunning development throughout the Zimmerman trial, one wherein the deceased victim was turned into a criminal....



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