April Yvonne Garrett authored a thoughtful response to President Obama’s remarks on the death of Trayvon Martin. Like Garrett, I fail to be as moved by the President’s remarks as many of my peers, though I desperately want to be moved. But I agree with Ta-nehisi Coates that the President’s remarks are significant– for the first time in our history, we have a President able to not only empathize, but experience the anguish expressed by large swaths of black Americans.
Still, we–and I don’t simply mean black Americans–deserve more. Charles Ogletree, President Obama’s esteemed Harvard University law professor, reminds us that Barack Obama is not president of Black America, but a President who happens to be black. This is a disappointing assessment, as it defines racism and racial inequality as issues only of concern to the African-American community, and not as far-reaching evils that retard America’s potential of becoming a more perfect union.
A few passages I’d like to highlight from the President’s speech:
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. 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.
I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have. On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and 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.
Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn’t mean we’re in a post-racial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But when I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I seem them interact, they’re better than we are — they’re better than we were — on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.
While it’s true that personal attitudes on race have evolved for the better over time, we continue to perpetuate (and justify) racial inequities by codifying prejudices into public policy. Stop-and-frisk programs, for example, ensure that suspicion will always follow black men, the sort of suspicion President Obama laments in his remarks. It’s one thing to ask Americans to be introspective on matters of race, it’s another thing entirely to challenge and condemn racialized (racist) public policies.
Even the 2003 Illinois racial profiling legislation authored by then state Senator Barack Obama–and referenced in his recent remarks–focused much more on racial biases potentially held by individual law enforcement officers. Now, however, President Obama praises the man described by Ta-nehisi Coates as the “proprietor of the largest local racial profiling operation in the country.”
President Obama had an opportunity to not only revisit America’s “difficult” and ugly past, but to address its troubling present. How can we ask the American people to wring themselves of bias, when the state continues to sanction it?
I woke up to some devastating news on this Christmas Eve: Black youth account for nearly 85 percent of teens charged as adults in the Baltimore region. Of course, today is as good a day as any to bring attention to this largely ignored issue. We ignore and accept this unfortunate reality because, by and large, African Americans (particularly black men) are still viewed as violent threats to society.
Following the Sandy Hook tragedy, we’ve started a (better, slightly more nuanced) dialogue about gun violence and mental illness, but we’ve sidestepped an essential truth about gun violence in America: it is unequally distributed and young black and Hispanic men residing in inner cities bear the brunt of its consequences. In 2008 and 2009, the leading cause of death among young black men was gun homicide–at a rate 8 times higher than young white men. And, yes, most homicides of young black men are perpetrated by other black men, but intraracial homicide is not unique to the African American community–something we have a tendency to forget.
As argued by Michele Goodwin, a professor of law at the University of Minnesota, there is a public health dimension of gun violence that we must confront. Through this lens, it can be argued that there is no greater epidemic as it relates to gun violence than in our inner cities. Philadelphia magazine recently reported that Philadelphians suffer similar psychological trauma as people in Afghanistan and Rwanda, trauma that can produce people who are “emotionally numb” and “indifferent to the value of life.” It’s a vicious cycle that precipitates more violence.
In the aftermath of the Newtown shootings, we’ve been afforded an opportunity to reflect upon mental illness and gun violence more vigorously and intelligently than before; let’s not forget to explore the (visibly) invisible racial dimensions as well, and how psychological trauma contributes to everyday acts of violence in our cities.
Several weeks ago, I was asked by WYPR–the local NPR affiliate station–to contribute a radio essay to its year-long series on segregation, “The Lines Between Us.” I was asked to explore the differences between inclusiveness and diversity. You can listen to my essay here and read the text below:
Periodically, someone—or some organization—asks for my advice on how to become more “diverse.” Here’s how that question sounds to me: “Rodney….how can I be less white?”
That’s an awkward role for a 28 year-old black guy to play. Even more so in a majority-minority city like Baltimore. My friend, the Baltimore Sun columnist Lionel Foster, calls it “translating.”
For members of most minority groups, cultural dexterity seems to be a matter of survival. It’s not an option, or something you ask someone to help you with.