I have a hard time joining the chorus celebrating the President’s comments on Trayvon Martin as one of his most stirring speeches. His legendary race speech in 2008 was near literary; Friday’s statement qualified more as remarks. “Personal,” yes—but this is a President who has written a best-selling autobiography and regularly prefaces his statements on all manner of issues with comments about “Michelle and I” and his daughters.Yet yesterday’s talk may have been his most significant statement on race, for reasons of symbol as much as of substance.
Namely, in making a statement, Obama has made truly significant a movement implacably embittered by George Zimmerman’s acquittal. That movement has the potential to be historically crucial, because the fact that things like what happened to Trayvon Martin are more likely for a black boy than a white one is what keeps conversations on race from being productive. An America where there was not a high-profile case every two years or so of an innocent young black man killed by a white (or in the case of Zimmerman, perhaps white-ish) person under menacingly ambiguous circumstances would be one where “the race thing” would no longer be so occult, so loaded, and so resistant to true healing.
Non-black observers are not uncommonly wondering why black America is making such a big deal over the murder, however tragic, of one person one night in one place. Why, they wonder, do black people have to magnify one episode into a statement about how America feels about the lives of black boys?
But this misses that for black people, as Obama got across in his speech, the poisonous relationship between young black men and law enforcement is the prime manifestation of racism in modern America.
If the police aren’t a regular part of your life it can be easy to miss this. I admit that for a long time I did. In the middle class Philadelphia and South Jersey neighborhoods I grew up in, the police were largely invisible, to the extent that they weren’t even referred to colloquially as “cops.” As such, after the Rodney King verdict I was taken aback, genuinely perplexed, that so many black people took it as evidence that black people “can’t get justice in this country,” as opposed to one man in California.
But I tried to learn, and what I have learned since then, in researching my first book about race, and keeping an eye on the issues after that, is that the perception of black men as inherently criminal is what most black people really mean by “racism” when they talk about its prevalence. Most can discuss more statistical manifestations on reflection, but what really sits in the gut is cases like Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, and now Martin. Or, the related experiences that black men have that Obama mentioned having had himself, such as being trailed in stores or watching white women tensing up as they pass.
This stuff is real. It’s raw. Testament to this daily kind of racist dismissal of black men is considered an urgent task of public discussion of the black condition. No one who understands this could possibly condone, for example, the vastly overreaching policy on stop-and-frisks in New York City. Should the police pay as much attention to the Upper East Side as Bedford-Stuyvesant? Of course not. But should most brown-skinned adolescents in a neighborhood expect to be stopped by usually surly cops for no reason? Say yes and you have no right to wonder why you get generation after generation of young men who feel alienated from their own society–which in fact makes Obama's consideration of Ray Kelly to lead the Department of Homeland Security decidedly more ungainly at this point.
In light of all this, Obama’s prescriptions were only half right. The idea that we need a “conversation” about race is tired. Besides the question as to what form this “conversation” would take, the suggestion is now a coded phrase for “conversion,” under which blacks would air grievance while whites “understand.” But many whites have done a lot of understanding on race over the past 50 years, and it’s unclear to me how much more of it could happen and via what strategies.
Especially if the idea is that people shed their biases, as Obama said. Americans have gone a long way towards doing that, too, over the past decades, and Obama invaluably noted that today’s people twenty and under have gotten a lot further on this than we adults can often even imagine. However, the idea of racial bias ever completely disappearing is fantasy. Plus, let’s face it, those most interested in the “conversation” about race are going to come into it with certain biases, and precisely what model of human interaction would make such people leave the “conversation” with significantly less bias—i.e. what goes under another name as human feeling?
And the sad thing is that programs bolstering black boys’ self-esteem are fine, but they’ll only do so much. One hears of such efforts that make a difference, such as in the East New York neighborhood of late. But such programs depend on certain community members mustering a fierce and persistent kind of initiative that is 1) hard to expect of anything like all of America’s oppressed neighborhoods, and 2) even harder to sustain for longer than a few years.
Obama was more on point with two suggestions. One is that we continue refining profiling policies, such that entire communities don’t feel under siege. New York’s current stop-and-frisk program, for example, has already taught a whole generation of black and Latino boys now becoming men that white people are aliens. Two, laws like Florida’s Stand Your Ground mean that in encounters between such boys and law enforcers, including self-appointed ones like Mr. Z., if the boy resists—as Trayvon Martin almost certainly did and with eminent justification—he can be killed with impunity for resisting.
Presentation, overall, matters—and the sheer fact that Obama spoke on this topic at some length may mean more than the specifics of the address. Almost as if it was written in a novel, the same day Obama made his speech a Gallup poll showed that only about a third of black people think racism is, itself, the main reason for black America’s problems.
Yet to the extent that black people feel that even remnants of racism can still leave black people murdered, “It ain’t over.” Obama sees that, and here’s to him for showing it with his double authority as a President and a black one.