Unrest in race relations

Protest has spread across the country in the wake of the weekend verdict in the Sanford, Fla., trial of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted in the shooting death of 17-year old Trayvon Martin. Sadly, those voices and others raised locally on entirely different topics again show the excruciatingly slow pace of progress in race relations.

Leaders of the Pitt County chapter of the NAACP joined others across the state and nation Monday expressing outrage and heartbreak over Zimmerman’s acquittal and calling for a Department of Justice investigation into civil rights violations against Martin. They also repeated their stance against “Stand Your Ground” laws and racial profiling.

But the local chapter’s main purpose Monday was to once again say emphatically how the Pitt County Sheriff’s Department and the Pitt County Schools failed in their efforts to investigate and prosecute an alleged sexual assault of a 7-year-old girl at Pactolus School. At another press conference last week, the local chapter president Calvin Henderson summed up the group’s concerns. 

Two cases, the same central issue. From the intensity shown in both, it is not likely that compromise is possible, only ultimate acceptance of an explicit reality, however that might be perceived or understood. The true nature of that reality continues to perplex.

Responding to the verdict this weekend, President Obama said: “The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy, not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America…. We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities.”

While it is comforting that no major outburst of violence followed the Zimmerman verdict, the question implicit in the president’s message nonetheless hangs menacingly over us, whether the issue is national or local. Is there somewhere a method or mechanism, a word of wisdom or a politician or policeman, who can suggest a way through the perilous gauntlet leading to the other side of this racial divide?

In the end, it is a question about which society cannot afford simply to agree to disagree.

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