Code Switch
2:56 am
Sun July 21, 2013

Black Americans Welcome Obama's Entry To Race Discussion

Originally published on Mon July 22, 2013 9:41 am

As soon as he made his remarks on race Friday, President Obama was part of an intense conversation around the nation.

In dozens of cities across the country on Saturday, protesters held coordinated rallies and vigils over the not-guilty verdict in the shooting death of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. Many African-Americans insist that understanding the context for black distress over the Zimmerman verdict is key to honest discussions about race.

In Washington, D.C., Djems Wolf Narcisse was visiting the Martin Luther King Memorial. He was not at the D.C. protest, but he does say that few white Americans can understand why black Americans don't look at race the same way they do.

"You know we're not looked upon as the people who fought for this country; we're looked upon as the burden of this country," he says.

White Americans, Narcisse says, probably didn't get the president's story of being followed while shopping because it isn't part of their experience, as it is his.

"That's what you gotta think about," he says. "When you walk into a store, do they follow you around? Have you ever had that happen to you?"

In Atlanta, Emory University professor Tyrone Forman likes that Obama encouraged white Americans to consider what might happen if the situation were reversed. What, Forman asks, if Trayvon Martin had been Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg — who also wears hoodies, just as Treyvon did the night he was killed?

"We can imagine a very different scenario would have transpired that evening in Sanford, Florida," Forman said. "And I think it's that context that President Obama was alluding to, and trying to open a conversation about."

Included in that conversation are Stand Your Ground laws, which many view as unevenly applied. Stand Your Ground was not used in the Zimmerman case, but many felt it played an unspoken role in the trial. It was very much on the minds of protesters around the country, like Ashley Franklin, in Los Angeles.

"I feel like Stand Your Ground laws are something tangible that you can grab hold to, and try to change, right?" Franklin says. "But I think that's much larger than just Stand Your Ground laws. It's more systemic."

She says that until all America gets that the system treats some of its citizens differently from others, the problem will persist.

For some people, understanding how different life outside the mainstream can be is a challenge.

Journalist Sylvester Monroe grew up in one of Chicago's toughest projects, light years away from the critics who say the president is ignoring black violence and crime. Monroe's book, Brothers, chronicles how hard it is for poor young black men to buy into — let alone achieve — the American Dream. He liked that the president admitted crime is a problem in many black communities while giving context to the problem.

"Yes, it is absolutely true that a disproportionate number of crimes are committed by young black men — but he said there's a reason for that," Monroe said. "Not an excuse. A reason."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) We are Trayvon. We are Trayvon. We are Trayvon. We are Trayvon.

MARTIN: There were rallies and vigils yesterday in 100 cities across the country, to protest the not-guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman. On Friday, President Obama spoke frankly to try and explain the continuing anger over the verdict, drawing on his own experiences.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.

MARTIN: Karen Grigsby Bates covers race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team and she reports that many African-Americans insist that understanding the context for black distress over the Zimmerman verdict is key to honest discussions about race.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Almost as soon as he made his remarks on race, the president found himself part of intense conversations around the nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

BATES: Visiting the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington on a hot afternoon, Djems Wolf Narcisse says few white Americans can understand why black Americans don't look at race the same way they do.

DJEMS WOLF NARCISSE: You know, we're not looked upon as the people who fought for this country; we're looked upon as the burden of this country.

BATES: White Americans, Narcisse says, probably didn't get the president's story of being followed while shopping because it isn't part of their experience, as it is his.

NARCISSE: That's what you got to think about. When you walk into a store, do they follow you around? Have you ever had that happen to you?

BATES: In Atlanta, Emory University professor Tyrone Forman likes that the president encouraged white Americans to consider what might happen if the situation were reversed. What, he asks, if Trayvon Martin had been Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who also wears hoodies - just as Trayvon did the night he was killed?

TYRONE FORMAN: We can imagine a very different scenario would have transpired on that evening in Sanford, Fla. And I think it's that context that President Obama was alluding to and, I think, trying to open up a conversation about.

BATES: Included in that conversation is overturning laws many view as unevenly applied. Stand Your Ground is one of those laws. It was not used in the Zimmerman case, but many felt it played an unspoken role in the trial. It was very much on the minds of protesters around the country, like Ashley Franklin in LA.

ASHLEY FRANKLIN: I feel like Stand Your Ground laws are something that's tangible that you can grab onto and try to change, right? But I think that's much larger than just Stand Your Ground laws. It's more systemic.

BATES: And, she says, that until all America gets that the system treats some of its citizens differently from others, the problem will persist. For some, just grasping how different life outside the mainstream can be is a challenge. Journalist Sylvester Monroe grew up in one of Chicago's toughest projects, light years away from the comfortable critics who say the president is ignoring black violence and crime. Monroe's book, "Brothers," chronicled how hard it is for poor young black men to buy into, let alone achieve, the American dream. He liked that the president admitted crime is a problem in many black communities while giving context to it.

SYLVESTER MONROE: Yes, it is absolutely true that, you know, a disproportionate number of crimes are committed by, you know, young black males. But he said there's a reason for that. Not an excuse - a reason.

BATES: And getting people to understand the reasons for the disparity in black America's experiences, he says, will be key to any future racial progress. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.