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updated 7/30/2013 8:17:19 PM ET 2013-07-31T00:17:19

"It absolutely is possible to legislate attitudes,” said Maya Wiley. “It is because by legislating opportunity you change how the attitudes are developed."

Sparked by the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin and President Obama’s recent call for dialogue on the country’s deep and lingering issues with race, Democratic members of Congress held a special hearing on Tuesday to discuss race and justice in America.

“The emotion and the energy so many people, especially our young people had around the Trayvon Martin tragedy, the attack on voting rights, the attack on feeding hungry people in this country and the lack of access to education, healthcare and almost every other issue that matters to our lives must be channeled into the right place,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio. “Therefore it is vital that we start and continue the conversation that we have begun today.”

The hearing, announced by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as “A Conversation on Race and Justice,” included members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Democrats from the party’s Steering and Policy Committee, and experts on race in America including Maya Wiley, president of the Center for Social Inclusion, Eugene Robinson, a Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist for the Washington Post, and Morris Dees, the founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

House members and the experts discussed disparities in the criminal justice system, Supreme Court rulings that chipped away at the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action, and the many ways in which explicit and implicit racism affect the lives of African-Americans. They also discussed so-called stand your ground laws which give wide discretion in the use of deadly force and which have come under scrutiny in the wake of the Zimmerman trial.  Zimmerman did not use a stand-your-ground defense: he pleaded not guilty, saying he shot Martin in self-defense after the teen attacked him. Zimmerman was arrested 44 days after the shooting and acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter.

“In the painful aftermath of the verdict in Florida, we’ve heard a lot about stand your ground laws,” said Rep. Robert E. Andrews of New Jersey. “We’re here today because we have a stand your ground law–it’s called the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and it says that neither equal protection or due process should be denied any American at any time… but when the one place that minority youth seem most welcomed is an unemployment line rather than a graduation line, we are here to stand our ground.”

The hearing comes just days after members of the Congressional Black Caucus called an “emergency summit” on gun violence in Chicago, and about a week after the newly formed Congressional Caucus on Black Men and Boys held its first special hearing. At that hearing, Tracy Martin, Trayvon Martin’s father, implored Congress to pay closer attention to the plight of black males.

“I vow to do everything in my power not to give up the fight for him, not only the fight for Trayvon but for so many other young black and brown boys in this country,” Martin said.

At Tuesday’s hearing, hosted by Pelosi and members of the CBC, Morris Dees, founder of the SPLC, said that “racial profiling is a secret hiding in public, and America is becoming increasingly armed and dangerous, and those two things make a recipe for disaster.”

“It doesn’t matter to me if people say the murder rate is dropping drastically, and you can come up with all the statistics: whether it’s one or one hundred who lose their life because of racial profiling, that’s one too many,” Dees said.

Also on Tuesday, a pair of Democrats, John Conyers of Michigan and Ben Cardin of Maryland, introduced legislation that would end racial profiling by law enforcement.

Maya Wiley spoke about overt racism and implicit biases based on race, and the unconscious racism built into the fabric of many policies and institutions.

“We carry many, many kinds of biases to what we see and how we actually structure society,” Wiley said. When a lawmaker suggested the difficulty in legislating away people’s prejudices, Miley bristled. “It absolutely is possible to legislate attitudes,” she said.

“It is because by legislating opportunity you change how the attitudes are developed,” Wiley said.

Another congressman, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who is white, said “there are not enough white people at this [event].”

“Racism is not simply about African-Americans,” he said. “It is about the very psychology of our country… racism is present in every one of our communities and present in all of our minds and we need to be conscious of it and confront it.”

 

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