President Obama’s deeply personal thoughts have filled the air and blogosphere with renewed calls for that serious conversation about race we keep meaning to have in this country. But for any such conversation to occur, let alone succeed, the president noted, white Americans must recognize that African-Americans look at race relations “through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”
As a white liberal who has just published a book about my own experiences with Chicago’s civil rights movement in the 1960s, I too have been struck by how personal experience influences not just my view of specific incidents, but by how the baseline of how we discuss race has shifted. Just over my own life span, I have seen that as a nation, we have been able to move the race conversation forward — even if we don’t always recognize at the time that we are doing so.
Take, for example, the tone and substance of a set of stories about civil rights leader Medgar Evers on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his assassination. They appeared within weeks of the George Zimmerman acquittal, but unlike the polarized reactions to that case, the tone and substance of these other stories were nearly universal. The shooter was clearly guilty of a heinous act and the victim was just as clearly an innocent man who contributed to society.
As a nation, we’re past the need to discuss things like separate drinking fountains. But when it comes to talking about young black men in hooded sweatshirts, we still have a long way to go.
The difference? At the time, the Evers shooting and other high-profile cases of death and violence, mostly in the South, triggered demonstrations in the street and national soul searching, just as the Trayvon Martin case is doing today. But five decades later, we have consensus: As a nation, we have concluded, that violence toward people simply exercising their civil rights isn’t just unlawful; it is wrong and unacceptable.
It’s hard to imagine such unanimity emerging from a conversation about Trayvon Martin. His case shows the issue of race remains embedded in our attitudes, and is still hard to talk about. But 50 years ago, it was similarly hard to imagine that a national consensus would emerge to favor the civil rights movement.
When Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in front of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago about his dream, the speech was noted for its eloquence, but not necessarily for its power of prediction. And while those of us who lived through it recall that day today with a warm glow of nostalgia, the reality back then was that many politicians and academic leaders discouraged participation in the Washington event for fear of violence. And with good reason.
Flash forward to a black man from Chicago living in the White House and eloquently speaking truth to racial reality in a way that has transfixed the nation. Yet just the fact that President Obama felt obliged to remind the nation that he too could have been Trayvon Martin demonstrates that race relations remain a work in progress.
Just as this nation is a work in progress, so too is our conversation about race.
As a nation, we’re past the need to discuss things like separate drinking fountains, and to call on the military to protect young black children who just want to go to school. But when it comes to talking about young black men in hooded sweatshirts, we still have a long way to go.
President Obama has pulled back the curtain to help us better understand the mindset of African Americans. But just as this nation is a work in progress, so too is our conversation about race.
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- Bayard Rustin: The Man Who Organized The March On Washington
- From NPR’s archives: Marking the 40th Anniversary of the March