Sunday, July 21, 2013

The president's message was sound, his timing was off

Last Friday, President Obama spoke to reporters at an impromptu gathering in the White House briefing room about the reaction of black Americans to the Trayvon Martin verdict. The President said that all Americans should respect the jury's acquittal of George Zimmerman, but that white Americans should also understand that African Americans are pained by Trayvon's death and continue to face racial discrimination. The president told reporters that, like other African Americans, he has been followed by security guards while shopping, and has seen motorists lock their doors or women hold tighter to their purses as he walked near them. "Those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida." He said: "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," Obama said, and "it's going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching."

Obama's message was powerful and important, but the timing was problematic and raised issues the president didn't intend to raise. The Zimmerman case was anything but a bright line morality play; at best, it was about as clear as a dense New England fog. That this case has become a touchstone to "prove" black marginalization is peculiar, because there are an infinite number of better examples. We do no favors to marginalized people when we "prove" their victim status by pointing to murky cases, like the Zimmerman mess. Worse, insisting that the verdict worked an injustice may, itself, be unjust to George Zimmerman. The experience of marginalized people certainly colors their perceptions; it does not give them license to manufacture their own facts at the expense of others.

None of that lessens the points Obama made last Friday, except this wasn't the time to raise them. As but one example, Obama should have invited Brian Banks to the White House last year and used his case as an example of the sort of unjust stereotyping too well known to black teen males. Brian pled guilty to rape, even though he was innocent, because his attorney convinced him that a black teen male can't get a fair shake in a jury trial for rape. The Hofstra case also raised issues about our willingness to assume guilt when minority teen males are accused of heinous criminality. There are many, many other examples.

Unfortunately, the causes of, and the solutions for, unjust stereotyping of young black males don't make for a simple sagebrush melodrama.

First, stereotyping young black males as evil and prone to crime is unjust to innocent young black males and should not be tolerated by persons of good will.

Second, an honest discussion about race can't ignore the underlying reasons for this stereotyping, unjust though it may be. Even Jesse Jackson once said: "There is nothing more painful to me ... than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved."  Bill Cosby's famous "pound cake" speech was an unflinching indictment of a dysfunctional, mostly fatherless, culture that is a cistern of violence, dependency, and hopelessness.

The problem with raising the issues Cosby raised is that it can give fuel to racists looking to spread their odium, or to misguided people looking to suggest that young black males are inherently flawed -- how else to explain that they hold a monopoly on virtually every social pathology?

Could it be possible that we've played a role in the decimation of the black community? Glenn McNatt of the Baltimore Sun once explained that the "no man in the house" rule was a classic example of how a government social policy aimed at assisting poor families actually undermined them:
. . . conservatives were the ones who insisted on making family breakups a condition for welfare. Remember the "man in the house" rule? That was the one that said families couldn't get assistance if there was an able-bodied man in the house. It was enacted because opponents of welfare, particularly Southern conservatives, simply couldn't abide the idea of government "handouts" to male heads-of-household. 
So if a man lost his job, he literally had to leave home if he wanted his children to be eligible for government surplus cheese, beans and peanut butter. Somehow conservatives persuaded themselves that this encouraged "family values." 
With the advantage of 20-20 hindsight it's easy to see how the policy had exactly the opposite effect. It accelerated the fragmentation of poor families at just the time low-skilled factory jobs were disappearing. The expansion of the welfare state in the 1960s coincided with the decline of the factory economy in the worst possible way because the no-man-in-the-house rule actually encouraged the breakup of stable, two-parent families.
When it comes to race, the problem is incredibly complicated and doesn't lend itself to a simple solution.  George Zimmerman is a red herring, a distraction that keeps us from talking about the real problems.

The biggest hurdle may be that well-intentioned people looking for a villain are searching for Snidely Whiplash twirling his handlebar mustache and tying a helpless damsel to a railroad track. In fact, the problems are much more complicated, much bigger, and much scarier than that.