When I was a boy I remember a fateful day when my father, who was a lawyer, got a call from a client. His name was Ernie, and he was a plumber. A few days earlier, Ernie went into a building, lit his pipe and was enveloped in flames because of a gas leak. He was severely burned on his face and arms.
I also remember the day my father came home from court. He was jubilant. "How'd you do?" I asked. "Great!" he replied. "We got $100,000." Then he sighed, "I only wish he'd been white."
I never forgot those words uttered more than half a century ago. Despite significant gains by African-Americans in our society since then, the evidence indicates their lives are still not valued the same as whites by our legal system. A 1985 study of 9,000 cases in Cook County, Illinois, found black plaintiffs received three-fourths of the awards of whites in tort cases. Law professor Jennifer Wiggins analyzed disparities in damages awarded to blacks and whites in tort settlements between 1865 and 2007 and concluded "race and racism have affected the calculation of African-American claimants."
Courts have traditionally relied on race and gender-based tables as guides for establishing damages in tort cases, but this works to the disadvantage of African-Americans because their life expectancy, wages and lifetime earnings are below whites. Law professor Martha Chamallas concluded after reviewing this issue that race- and gender-based tables result in significantly lower awards for minority men and women.
The inflammatory rhetoric surrounding the Trayvon Martin case should not distract us from a critical analysis of the institutional biases that persist in our society against people of color and women. Regardless of the outcome of this case, it should serve as a catalyst for needed discussion about the issues of racism and sexism — subjects that will keep resurfacing as long as they are denied and neglected.
H. Roy Kaplan was the executive director of the National Conference of Christians and Jews for Tampa Bay. His most recent book is "The Myth of Post-Racial America."