A conversation with the President


This is a long post. After watching and listening to the president’s speech, I wanted to listen out loud, and talk back a little, so here it is: one white woman’s take, one citizen’s engagement with her president, straight from the heart and not edited. President Obama’s words are the main text; my comments are in italics.

I am glad the President spoke. Every time he does speak about race, I think he is immediately criticized and perceived as being “too black” and not the “president of all of us.” While I disagree with some aspects of President Obama’s administration, I do want to say that I think speaking about race, racism and race-based privilege is completely consistent with being the “president of all of us,” because all of us in the United States are affected by our nation’s race-based dysfunctions and injustices.

The reason I actually wanted to come out today is not to take questions, but to speak to an issue that obviously has gotten a lot of attention over the course of the last week — the issue of the Trayvon Martin ruling.

 Trayvon Martin ruling? I think of it as the George Zimmerman ruling. After all, it was Mr. Zimmerman who was on trial. Maybe it is a gesture of respect or identification on your part to refer to young Mr. Martin as being the subject of the ruling, but in my mind it triggered thoughts of how much of the press has seemed to put Mr. Martin on trial, which saddens me and reminds me of how women who are raped also become subject to blaming the victimized person. What was she wearing? What was she doing? How did she ask for it, and how does that render the perpetrator blameless?

I gave a preliminary statement right after the ruling on Sunday.  But watching the debate over the course of the last week, I thought it might be useful for me to expand on my thoughts a little bit.

First of all, I want to make sure that, once again, I send my thoughts and prayers, as well as Michelle’s, to the family of Trayvon Martin, and to remark on the incredible grace and dignity with which they’ve dealt with the entire situation.  I can only imagine what they’re going through, and it’s remarkable how they’ve handled it.

I can’t completely imagine it, because despite everything I know and try to do, I am raising a privileged white son who will get the benefit of many a doubt. But as the mother of a son, I can imagine it a little, and that little imaginary foray into the lived reality of Martin’s parents is a gutcheck I feel through and through. When I multiply that pain by all the dead black children … the volume of grief is very hard to sit with. And yet, it is critically important for me to do just that. Before leaping to moralizing and pontificating, I need to just sit in the pain, and feel the feelings. More of us need to do that, and just not go much further, for a long while. That’s human. That’s connected. That’s respect.

The second thing I want to say is to reiterate what I said on Sunday, which is there’s going to be a lot of arguments about the legal issues in the case — I’ll let all the legal analysts and talking heads address those issues.  The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner.  The prosecution and the defense made their arguments.  The juries were properly instructed that in a case such as this reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict.  And once the jury has spoken, that’s how our system works.

Well, Mr. President, I respect your stance. But you are a lawyer. I know you don’t want to second-guess the city and state, and you don’t want to look like you are pushing Eric Holder’s hand, but I would like to have heard your impression, as a lawyer and as a former senator. Were the legal options adequate for justice to be done? I don’t think so.

But I did want to just talk a little bit about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling.

Good. I’m glad to have a president to articulate thoughts on some of this.

You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son.  Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.  And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.

Right. African American experiences are different, and have shaped a different worldview than the one most white people live in/with. We have not remotely done the work we need to do to be able to see through that lens, even temporarily. White people continue to hold most positions of power in our society, and so the United States continues to be shaped by a white-dominant culture that can sample other cultures at its whim. But sampling or appropriating music, clothes or food does not mean white people have a grasp of another culture, even one whose history we have shared for hundreds of years.

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 wonder how many white women and store employees know that most shoplifting is done by young white women. (I know. I shoplifted as a young white woman, and was busted once, and let go.) I wonder how many white women have locked the doors of their cars when seeing an African American male approach. (I have. I don’t now, but the thought still occurs to me, because it is deeply ingrained in my head, even though the only men who ever hurt me were both white and both related to me.) I wonder how many white women clutch in the elevator. (I don’t clutch … but see above.)

And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.

Those experiences are bad enough, but they do not begin to touch the depth of prolonged, systemic, intergenerational, entrenched, intentional injustice perpetrated by white people and faced by African American people in this country, from slavery to the Middle Passage, from Jim Crow to the prison-industrial complex, and a judicial system that over-criminalizes and over-penalizes people of color at every level. That’s a hell of a lens to try to see through.

And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.  The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.  And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.

Right. And not just the African American community. As a white woman I have a partial awareness of how our judicial system tends to convict white(r) people less often than black people, particularly when the victim is black. This is seen at even higher rates than usual in Stand Your Ground states: “Whites who kill blacks in Stand Your Ground states are far more likely to be found justified in their killings. In non-Stand Your Ground states, whites are 250 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than a white person who kills another white person; in Stand Your Ground states, that number jumps to 354 percent.”

Now, this isn’t to say that the African American community is naïve about the fact that African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system; that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence.  It’s not to make excuses for that fact — although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.  They understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.

Who are the architects of the historical context that has helped to create this legacy of poverty and violence? The passive voice in this paragraph lets the white authors of this violent past off the hook.

And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration.  And the fact that a lot of African American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African American boys are more violent — using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.

There are far more white men in power and with economic and political resources than there are African American boys who are violent. That’s what is unacknowledged: that we as a nation have the resources for ALL of our children to have educations and jobs. But SOME of us profit from the fact that MANY of our children face a steep climb to educations and jobs. And so our racially unjust past continues to create a racially unjust present, and will undoubtedly create a racially unjust future without clear sight and changes now.

I think the African American community is also not naïve in understanding that, statistically, somebody like Trayvon Martin was statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else.

But how is this the point? Why focus on who Trayvon Martin was statistically likely to be shot by, rather than who he was in fact shot by? Why are we not also talking about how race in America shaped the perpetrator of the shooting? Why do we abide by press outlets claiming that race had nothing to do with it, when race shapes ALL of us, and therefore cannot help but shape Mr. Zimmerman?

So folks understand the challenges that exist for African American boys.  But they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there’s no context for it and that context is being denied. And that all contributes I think to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.

Uh, yeah. But you can’t build justice out of conjecture.

Now, the question for me at least, and I think for a lot of folks, is where do we take this?

To a realization that killing unarmed children is always wrong, including those who are being killed by U.S. drones, Mr. President. To a determination that laws that produce results like this need to be revised. To a commitment to education and job opportunity for all, and the tax structures to fund that commitment.

How do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction?

Ask the young black men. And black women. Seriously.

I think it’s understandable that there have been demonstrations and vigils and protests, and some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through, as long as it remains nonviolent.

I’d like it to be nonviolent, too. But I want more than what I want the reaction not to be. Here’s what I want it to be. Relevant to my point above, about sitting in the ashes of grief, we — and by we I mean white people specifically, and all of us generally — have much to grieve.

If we are not lamenting, we are not paying attention.

We are a nation of Cains, and our brothers’ blood is crying out from the ground. If we will not sit still and listen, and grieve the loss of these human beings, how will we develop the desire to make something more abundant and just of our life together?

If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family.  But beyond protests or vigils, the question is, are there some concrete things that we might be able to do.

Yes. See above.

I know that Eric Holder is reviewing what happened down there, but I think it’s important for people to have some clear expectations here.  Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government, the criminal code.  And law enforcement is traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.

I have trouble with this line of reasoning, when local and state governments are legislating so much unjust, bad law predicated on protecting only what wealthy straight white men of a certain mindset don’t want to lose: property rights and access to profit-producing resources.

We need a human rights movement, and now.

That doesn’t mean, though, that as a nation we can’t do some things that I think would be productive.  So let me just give a couple of specifics that I’m still bouncing around with my staff, so we’re not rolling out some five-point plan, but some areas where I think all of us could potentially focus.

I’m interested in five-point plans, getting them done, and then getting five more. Just sayin’ … there’s lots of work to do.

Number one, precisely because law enforcement is often determined at the state and local level, I think it would be productive for the Justice Department, governors, mayors to work with law enforcement about training at the state and local levels in order to reduce the kind of mistrust in the system that sometimes currently exists.

Tweaks. Training doesn’t help when the laws themselves are not adequate or just. The mistrust “exists” because black and brown people are targeted at every juncture of the legal system: disproportionately stopped, searched, arrested, charged, incarcerated and executed. The injustice piles up like mercury in an ecosystem, eventually poisoning and killing at every level.

When I was in Illinois, I passed racial profiling legislation, and it actually did just two simple things.  One, it collected data on traffic stops and the race of the person who was stopped.  But the other thing was it resourced us training police departments across the state on how to think about potential racial bias and ways to further professionalize what they were doing.

Racial profiling will not stop until the penalties for profiling are greater than the rewards. Follow the money ….

And initially, the police departments across the state were resistant, but actually they came to recognize that if it was done in a fair, straightforward way that it would allow them to do their jobs better and communities would have more confidence in them and, in turn, be more helpful in applying the law.  And obviously, law enforcement has got a very tough job.

Lots of law enforcement employees do heroic work. Trust and mistrust have been earned. The mistrust will take a long time and systemic justice to be erased.

So that’s one area where I think there are a lot of resources and best practices that could be brought to bear if state and local governments are receptive.  And I think a lot of them would be.  And let’s figure out are there ways for us to push out that kind of training.

Training is a tweak. The laws and the system itself needs to change. Can we talk about the reality that for-profit prisons need a ready supply of prisoners? Which requires the criminalization of great numbers of disposable people?

Along the same lines, I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see if it — if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than diffuse potential altercations.

Yes. Fact is, the examination has begun, and the results are that Stand Your Ground leads to more violent altercations and outcomes, along existing lines of racial privilege and lack thereof. See above.

I know that there’s been commentary about the fact that the “stand your ground” laws in Florida were not used as a defense in the case.  On the other hand, if we’re sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there’s a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we’d like to see?

No. Compare our levels of (a) societal fear, (b) gun ownership and (c) lethal gun violence to other developed nations.

I don’t want a Stand Your Ground nation.

I want a Common Ground nation.

And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these “stand your ground” laws, I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?  And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened?  And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.

Interesting thought experiment, although it grieves me for this young man, who is dead, to have become a talking point.

Again, you can’t build a just society on conjecture. We need changed hearts, changed minds, and changed laws.

Number three — and this is a long-term project — we need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African American boys.  And this is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about.  There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement.  And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?

Yes. We can invest in them. Our young men — as long as they cannot get an education, and a job, and then a family — will continue to grow more cynical and violent toward what should be — and is not — their community and their nation.

I’m not naïve about the prospects of some grand, new federal program.  I’m not sure that that’s what we’re talking about here.

No, Mr. President, I don’t think you have the political or economic capital to spend on a grand, new federal program; the Republicans would eat you alive on tax-n-spend grounds. But it would be great if you could note that this is exactly what’s needed to make reparations for the generations of unpaid and underpaid labor of African American males which produced the wealth this country has stockpiled in the bank accounts of white-owned and white-controlled corporations and private entities. And then lead us all in grieving that we do not have the political or economic will to do the right thing and redeem the soul of this nation.

But I do recognize that as President, I’ve got some convening power, and there are a lot of good programs that are being done across the country on this front.  And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes, and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed — I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was obviously a tragic situation.  And we’re going to spend some time working on that and thinking about that.

Just do it. Education; jobs; lives for all young people.

And for the rest of us? Consider the history of how we got here. Stop talking about how we are not responsible for this or that. Let’s become response-able to our history: let’s respond to the voices crying out from our past for justice, and make it happen in the here and now.

And then, finally, 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.

Exactly. Thank you for this refreshing bit of truth.

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.

I can do better. I commit to doing better. Concretely.

And let me just leave you with a final thought that, as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better.  Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race.

Yes. I don’t want to rain on the positivity parade, because God knows we need hope. But let’s not lose our sense of urgency before we ever get started. The fact is, we are SO far behind where we need to be. We need to do our generation’s work and then some.

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.

Yeah, in some places and in some ways. And I listen, too, Mr. President, and my kids are in the white backstage of this country. There’s plenty of racism and race-resistance that’s not shifted at all, and shows no sign of doing so, because we are not offering a path or motivation.

And so we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues.  And those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature, as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions.  But we should also have confidence that kids these days, I think, have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did; and that along this long, difficult journey, we’re becoming a more perfect union — not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.

We are becoming … let’s do so more mindfully and intentionally, so that we get somewhere we actually want to be.

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4 Responses to A conversation with the President

  1. mowequa says:

    I wish you could have a for REAL conversation with him… THIS very conversation – this is ah-may-zing! Insightful, honest, real, sitting with the pain, sitting in the ashes of grief… I wish every person in America could read this. WOW!

    • tam121 says:

      Thanks, Mowequa. There is energy and insight in grief; and honesty. I am learning that I move quickly to denunciation and moralizing, and there’s work to do in grief that I think we miss. Hard to do outside of real community … thanks for your witness!

  2. Hawke says:

    Tam, thanks for taking the time to express yourself so eloquently. Until each of us accepts full responsibility and accountability for the consequences of our actions, we will continue this struggle. I am reminded that “civil” is the root of both civilization and civility, but is lacking in most of our daily interactions.( big sigh)

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