July 21, 2013

Thinking and Listening and Talking About Race

I've been spending some time and thought on President Obama's remarks Friday regarding the verdict in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case.  As you know, Zimmerman was found not guilty of second degree murder (and a lesser manslaughter charge) in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin last February; the decision has sparked rallies and protests and much hand wringing by folks left, right and center.

Obama's comments were heartfelt, non-TelePrompTer-ed, and came as a complete surprise to everyone in the press room on Friday. (You can watch the video and access the transcript here). My sense is he was speaking not as the President but as a black man, as a father, and I think most importantly as someone who remains hopeful about how America deals with race. He was, as openly and humanly as possible, trying to explain to all of us why African Americans think the way they do about this verdict.

Being of primarily European descent (English, Scots, French, Welsh, Dutch) with a (very) little Native American thrown in on my Mom's side, I'm a mutt - a white mutt with no particular ties to any of my ancestral lines. Truth be told, I probably identify more as a Syracusan, a New Yorker, and a Boston Red Sox fan than I do any of my mixed ancestry. Although, there IS a castle in Scotland that has my name written all over it...

Me being a white female has given me a totally different experience that than of the President, his family, and others who identify as African-American. I can intellectually understand what it might be like to experience what he and other blacks encounter, but I can't imagine it viscerally, as they must:
There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.
And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
He noted that those experiences (and our history) 'inform' the African-American community and their opinions on this case and others where racism might be - or actually is - involved.
And you know, I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear. The African-American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.
There are informing experiences on both sides, and the President touched on this in his remarks as well, with references to statistics on young blacks and crime, although his comments on that are tempered by the 'informing':
Now, this isn’t to say that the African-American community is naive about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.
(That was in part what informed George Zimmerman's opinion of Trayvon Martin, if we are to  believe his story.)
It’s not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.
We understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.
(Much of the violence doesn't have historical connotations - Obama himself makes this point a little further on in his remarks.)
I think the African-American community is also not naive in understanding that statistically, somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else.
(I said this before and I'll say it again: this is a real tragedy.)
And the fact that a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African-American boys are more violent -- using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.  
So -- so folks understand the challenges that exist for African- American boys, but they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there’s no context for it or -- and that context is being denied. 
I have to admit I struggle with constantly using history as the driver of one's viewpoint. I think that it's a tactic that does 'excuse' behavior that shouldn't be excused by something that happened 50, 100, 150 years ago. In my opinion, most of the crime happening today has nothing to do with how our forefathers several generations back treated each other, or the civil rights movement or the brutality of the Sixties or anything else. Ask anyone who's arrested of a crime these days and I bet none of those issues will come up in conversation.

And while I don't deny there is sometimes a place for historical context, we risk perpetuating what's happening today if we continue to focus so much on the past. I think it's over-used in many cases, particularly by those who choose (or have been chosen) to speak for the African-American community as a whole, who see racism behind every act and action, lurking around every corner.

And if you see racism everywhere, and paint every difficult decision or unpleasant outcome as being race-related, aren't you using the same broad brush you accuse the racists of using? And aren't you then denying what informs the other side's experience?

Obama mentioned a few things he's batting around with his staff, action items or discussion points if you will, while realizing at the same time the inherent risks of having politicians or the federal government try and solve what it ultimately a societal issue. 

There was this, which I am sure will make some people's skin crawl:
We need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys... There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?
Why? Because "all we need" is another social program, "all we need" is to throw more money at this problem, "all we need" is to keep trying to make people behave the way they should already be behaving, and "all we need" is to expand the Nanny State, and on and on and on. For conservatives, this must have gone over like fingernails on a chalkboard.
And there are a lot of good programs that are being done across the country on this front. And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African-American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that -- and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed -- you know, I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was obviously a tragic situation. And we’re going to spend some time working on that and thinking about that. 
Two things on this point. First, I've already done what he's talking about. I did it in the context of violence not race, but it's the same concept. I hope it made a difference, although I'll never know. 

Second, I've got to be honest, even as a moderate, it's hard not to think we have enough social programs.  Is the issue that we just don't have enough people taking accountability and responsibility for parenting their children, for making sure their kids get an education, for teaching them self-respect and to respect others, to take the high road instead of the easy path of crime and violence?

And it's also hard not to think we already have enough young black men out there now who think the 'pathways and avenues to succeed' only run through athletic and celebrity venues, and who think the lifestyle they see in music videos and reality shows is the right aspiration to have - particularly the degrading way women are portrayed in that lifestyle.

Who is responsible for that failure? White America? The African-American community? Athletes and celebrities who glorify that behavior? Poverty? Our difficult and violent history?

Is it really on all of us, because of what happened decades before? I'm not sure.

In the end, I hope that President Obama's comments do get people thinking.
...at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can; am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy...
And so, you know, we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues, and those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions.
But we should also have confidence that kids these days I think have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did, and that along this long, difficult journey, you know, we’re becoming a more perfect union -- not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.

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