Race and Criminal Justice, on the Anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s Death

—Devon Johnson, Patricia Warren, and Amy Farrell

johnson comps.inddTrayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American boy, died tragically on February 26, 2012.   His death and the trial of his assailant evoked memories of our nation’s troubled history, including the murder of another young black boy, Emmett Till, in 1955. But the circumstances that led to Martin’s death, and to the acquittal of the man who shot him, are very much a product of the present day.

Trayvon Martin’s death was the first in a recent string of high-profile incidents – from Ferguson to Staten Island, from Baltimore to Chicago – that have brought issues of race and justice to the forefront of a national debate. Collectively, these episodes have raised serious questions about racial profiling and implicit bias, the legitimacy of the criminal justice system, and whether all Americans receive equal justice and protection under the law. These highly-publicized incidents have prompted nationwide protests and promoted collective action, including social movements like #BlackLivesMatter.

In response to growing concerns about the legitimacy of the criminal justice system, efforts to address racial inequality have emerged or been reinvigorated. Bipartisan attempts to dismantle the era of mass incarceration, which has disproportionately affected communities of color with far-reaching collateral consequences, are evident at both the state and federal level. Similarly, law enforcement leaders across the nation are developing new police trainings and policies that address implicit bias and emphasize procedural justice.

These changes are promising, but they will need to be part of a much broader and sustained effort to reform criminal justice practices in order to adequately address the complex social, political, cultural, and legal processes that produce racial inequality in the administration of justice. Critical reforms are needed to the structures and institutions in our society that promote stereotypes and tolerate discrimination. Though difficult, the pursuit of such reform is necessary to move the U.S. toward a more just society.

As Black History Month comes to a close, it is fitting to reflect on how much our nation has achieved when it comes to addressing inequality in our society. But today, on the fourth anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death, it is also important to remember there is still much more work to be done.

Devon Johnson is Associate Professor of Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason University. Patricia Warren is Associate Professor in the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University. Amy Farrell is Associate Professor of Criminology and Northeastern University. They are the co-editors of Deadly Injustice: Trayvon Martin, Race and the Criminal Justice System (NYU Press, 2015).