Having called on President Obama to take action following George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, I was heartened to see the president speak up about the case.
However, I took no pleasure in watching the president deliver his remarks, because the president’s words, as insightful and honest as they were, left me wishing for much more.
His words left me yearning for an America whose racial disparities did not require the President of the United States to explain them.
His words left me dreaming of a day when our society could move completely beyond the divisions of black and white.
But at the same time, his words delivered a measure of comfort. They let me know I’m not alone.
A familiar message
“Trayvon Martin could’ve been me 35 years ago,” Mr. Obama said. “And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away. There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they’re shopping in a department store. That includes me.”
It includes me, as well.
In fact, all of the little indignities that the president said black men endure sounded painfully familiar.
Even as an award-winning journalist and author, I am still subjected to the sometimes funny and always frustrating spectacle of fearful white women clutching their pocketbooks in elevators.
Despite my designation as one of the 50 writers representing Philadelphia’s literary legacy, I have been followed in a Macy’s in downtown Philadelphia.
These realities are minor annoyances, however, compared to the other reality that fuels mistrust of the criminal justice system among blacks. African Americans have historically faced unequal treatment under the law, and as the president pointed out, statistical disparities remain, especially where the death penalty and drug laws are concerned.
Still, there are other realities that the black community is painfully aware of, and in my view, President Obama was most impressive in laying out those truths with a frankness that was refreshing.
“[T]he African American community is not naïve about the fact that African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system — that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence,” Mr. Obama said.
“It’s not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context. They understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods in this country is born 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,” he continued. “And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration and the fact that a lot of African American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, ‘Well, there’s 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.”
Trayvon Martin’s case both illustrates and exacerbates that pain.
It is a case that showed that Americans’ reaction to an unarmed young man being gunned down was often colored by race. Unfortunately, many people are only honest about their feelings when they can do so anonymously — on a comment board or in a chat room.
“Zimmerman was the victim in this case,” wrote a reader who identified himself as H.F., in response to my initial blog about the case. “A victim of prejudice by weak people with weak minds who can’t understand that killing someone is very justifiable … I couldn’t possibly care less that he is dead. Unless you were a close friend of family member, how does the death of this thug affect you in any way shape or form besides the uproar of media?”
Other commenters were similarly angry, and the responses broke down along what appeared to be racial lines.
Those comments showed that there is a wide chasm between Americans’ views on race; views that are influenced by history and experience, by our place in the social pecking order, and by the expectations that arise from those factors. The divide is clear, and it raises an obvious question.
“The question, for me at least, and I think for a lot of folks, is, ‘Where do we take this?'” Mr. Obama said. “How do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction?”
The president offered three ideas, including providing greater training on racial profiling for police officers, challenging stand your ground laws, and investing in African American boys.
I believe all those things are good ideas, but I think there is one thing we have to do before we do anything else. We have to stop hiding behind the shadowy anonymity of online comment boards. We have to stop typing our feelings on keyboards and talk openly face-to-face.
Only then will we be able to save the next Trayvon Martin from facing a bullet. Only then will we be able to stop the next George Zimmerman from pulling the trigger. Only then will we be able to move beyond the mistrust of our past.