President Obama reminded the world that he is a black man in America. Who knew? At a surprise appearance on Friday at the White House, Obama spoke for the first time on the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder trial. Obama reminded the world that the African-American experience in America, particularly for men, creates a set of circumstances where black men are used to being feared and accustomed to the disparity with which they are treated by the law.
Obama personalized the experience of the black man in America by saying he too knows what it is like to have drivers lock their doors and women clutch their purses in his presence. Obama echoed the experiences of Eric Holder who recently said that he too had experienced what it was like to be a target simply because you are a black man.
Obama brought the bully pulpit to bear in describing the imbalance of justice afforded black men in America. In so many ways, he gave America a taste of the “conversation” that Holder spoke about having with his 15-year-old son and that Geraldo Rivera talked about having with his sons.
It is that conversation that fathers of minority children have when explaining how to deal with a biased criminal justice system in a day-to-day existence. It is a conversation with a goal of providing pragmatic advice to combat a system that targets and arrests black men at higher rates than any other ethnicity in America.
In Obama’s speech he basically recounted what we know already. The rules of the game, based on past and current history, are stacked against black men. We already know the statistics. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that one in 15 African-Americans are incarcerated and one in three can expect to be incarcerated in their lifetime. Black men are profiled at alarmingly higher rates than others in America. They receive longer sentences for similar crimes holding constant for age, criminal history, and location. Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project, notes that a Department of Justice report on racial profiling found that “black people are three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop, twice as likely to be arrested, and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police.” The Sentencing Project found that African-American youth have higher rates of juvenile incarceration and are more likely to be sentenced to adult prisons. The Department of Education found that African-American students are arrested more than white classmates. Black men are arrested at four times the rate of white men for possession of marijuana, even though usage rates among blacks and whites are numerically equivalent.
Scott Rasmussen wrote, “There’s a reason most black Americans believe our justice system is out to get them.”
A recent article on PolicyMic in the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict sparked my interest, not because of the contents of the article itself, but because of the comments that followed. The young white woman in the video that the article linked to claimed that middle-class whites who take up the “I am Trayvon Martin” rallying cry are, in fact, deluding themselves if they believe the cultural education that they have received doesn’t teach fear of black people. Most of the white commenters responded angrily, denouncing the video and claiming that they were never taught to be racist. I could not adequately respond in the comments so I decided to write a letter and publish it here.
Dear White People of America,
I know you weren’t taught to be racists. Your parents were/are good people who worked hard and never hated anyone. You went to decent schools and have lived in diverse places. You publicly espouse tolerance for everyone. I know you weren’t taught to be racists. But somehow many of you have absorbed, if not racist attitudes, then certainly prejudiced ones.
Though I know that it will be viewed as such in many quarters, I don’t intend this opening to be inflammatory. What I want is to spark a real conversation around race, privilege, and perception, a conversation that has been sorely lacking in America and which is not happening in any meaningful way even in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict. Whites, blacks, and other minorities keep talking past each other regarding race. If we are to prevent the tragic deaths of more children, then this has to stop.
America’s current issue with race is not the problem of old. The KKK doesn’t roam the streets looking for people to lynch anymore. Nooses no longer adorn trees, dangling “strange fruit” as a warning to black people to stay in their place. Governors don’t stand in school house doors proclaiming the never-ending reign of segregation. Our current problems are deeper and much harder to talk about. They are as deep as our thoughts, and few alive today were taught by any authority figure in our formative years to actively hate. But somehow, we have absorbed the lesson that we should actively fear.
That’s what George Zimmerman did. He actively feared a young black kid walking home from the store in the dark. Why? Zimmerman’s father was a judge, someone dedicated to upholding a colorblind law. I seriously doubt that he taught his soon that black people were a threat. So who did? Why did George Zimmerman, and why do so many of you, so actively distrust and fear black youth that laws that could justify the killing of such youth are allowed?
How did this irrational fear creep into our national culture and indoctrinate us? I have no real answers to that question. I suspect that it has something to do with media portrayals of black people coupled with the realities of minority poverty. Shows that portray white criminals tend to do so in a sort of fantasy of storytelling. Who is likely to meet an Italian mobster in their everyday life? Conversely, shows like The Wire and Oz purport to portray a “slice of life” in black neighborhoods. We are much more likely to meet people like those characters, black men with a violent streak. Hip-hop has, for years, been one-dimensionally viewed as violent and disruptive. And who makes hip-hop? Black males. The murder statistics out of Chicago are appalling and splashed all over the news. Black kids are shown as dropouts and dope dealers, gang-bangers and thugs. With so many violent and negative portrayals, it’s no wonder that many of you unconsciously think of black men as a threat.
Here is a painful admission. I, a black man, harbor much of this fear as well. I too have been indoctrinated to fear black males. My heart rate quickens and I begin to look for possible avenues of escape when I see an unknown black man approaching on the street, especially if he is wearing “thug clothes.” I roll up my windows when a black person pulls up next to me in a jacked-up Cadillac blasting rap.
If I can own up to the fear, white people, I think you should too. Let’s all stop hiding behind the “I’m not a racist” excuse and admit that we do fear the Other, especially if the Other is a black male. Let’s look at what we consume in the media and how our culture shapes us and admit that it just might be affecting how we think about minority males.
White people, I know you weren’t taught to be racist. But if the effects are the same — if innocent kids can be gunned down and the killers can get off and even be defended by whites as “being within their rights,” if you can still pass laws that disenfranchise and impoverish minorities without protest, if you can carry on as if everything is OK when black people are dying in the streets of our cities — then how am I to tell the difference? I’ll take you at your word that you’re not racist and weren’t taught to be so. But until you can admit that many of you harbor an irrational fear of black men, then we can’t really begin the process of making all of us safer.
A Black Man
Nationally, an estimated 5.85 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of laws that prohibit voting by people with felony convictions. Felony disenfranchisement is an obstacle to participation in democratic life which is exacerbated by racial disparities in the criminal justice system, resulting in 1 of every 13 African Americans unable to vote.
Supreme Court Invalidates Key Part of Voting Rights Act
The Supreme Court on Tuesday effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a 5-to-4 vote, freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval.
The court divided along ideological lines, and the two sides drew sharply different lessons from the history of the civil rights movement and the nation’s progress in rooting out racial discrimination in voting. At the core of the disagreement was whether racial minorities continued to face barriers to voting in states with a history of discrimination.
“Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. “While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”
The decision will have immediate practical consequences. Texas announced shortly after the decision that a voter identification law that had been blocked would go into effect immediately, and that redistricting maps there would no longer need federal approval. Changes in voting procedures in the places that had been covered by the law, including ones concerning restrictions on early voting, will now be subject only to after-the-fact litigation.
President Obama, whose election as the nation’s first black president was cited by critics of the law as evidence that it was no longer needed, said he was “deeply disappointed” by the ruling.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg summarized her dissent from the bench, an unusual move and a sign of deep disagreement. She cited the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and said his legacy and the nation’s commitment to justice had been “disserved by today’s decision.”
She said the focus of the Voting Rights Act had properly changed from “first-generation barriers to ballot access” to “second-generation barriers” like racial gerrymandering and laws requiring at-large voting in places with a sizable black minority. She said the law had been effective in thwarting such efforts.
The law had applied to nine states — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia — and to scores of counties and municipalities in other states, including Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote that Congress remained free to try to impose federal oversight on states where voting rights were at risk, but must do so based on contemporary data. But the chances that the current Congress could reach agreement on where federal oversight is required are small, most analysts say.
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