President Obama’s remarks Friday afternoon regarding race were some of the most important, if not the most important words he’s spoken since taking office.
The candid, non-scripted press conference addressed multiple issues that we all face day to day. And while some have called him a race-baiter, he exposed the “out of sight, out of mind” approach that some have the privilege of taking toward the matter.
Following a talk about the issue with CNN’s Jake Tapper Friday, the progress and regression on the topic of racial equality and harmony came right into my inbox. There were a couple voicemails: The first, from a woman whose guilt, shame and ideas for atonement were on full display.
“I’d just like to make this comment that most of the stand your ground states are the same states we fought in the civil war, the southern states. I’m getting sick and tired of the southern states discriminating against young black men. It’s got to stop. … We owe the young black men of America a free education and to stand them on their feet after they have been mistreated so blatantly. How can they get a job? I mean I have never ever seen such discrimination. It doesn’t happen in Europe, it doesn’t happen in Canada. Only in this land of the free do they discriminate against African-Americans and I’m sick of it,” the woman, who identified herself as white, calling from Maryland said. You can hear the pain in her voice.
Another came from a woman, who chose not to leave her name, but did choose to unfurl some of the most racist language I’ve ever heard in my life. Here’s just a snippet that’s publishable in a family newspaper:
“We white people, have realized that you black people just really hate us. This isn’t about white people coming down on you guys, this is black people, just really hating the whites. Face it. You want us to face things? We’ve been facing since the Civil War when thousands of our people died for you. That was never enough. I don’t know why you guys don’t go back to Africa,” the woman, calling from a phone with a Florida area code explained. Her disgust was evident, as it took three separate calls to finish her thoughts.
I’ve had encounters with overt racists before. Part of me has no problem with it because if people can’t air out their feelings, there’s certainly no way to reconcile them. But this seemed unproductive. The messages immediately reinforced exactly why Obama’s comments were so needed.
Saturday, I came across this blog post titled “I Killed Trayvon Martin” said to be written by someone named Eddie Hatcher. “No reasonable grown man with a gun would be afraid of a skinny minor, but a racist person like myself would,” he wrote. “But unlike [George] Zimmerman, I take ownership of my fear, my racism. I’m not going to shoot someone because their skin color makes me afraid. I’m going to do the opposite. When I see the ‘black man in a dark alley’ and that childhood fear pops out, I push it down to replace it with a smile and a nod. When people cultivate that fear, innocent children die.”
You have to start somewhere.
Later that day, a man stood outside of an apartment building in Mount Pleasant, with no way to get in. He had been working on a tenant’s apartment for more than a month. That resident had not given the contractor any way of regularly accessing the very property he’d been hired to improve. That meant long stretches of waiting.
As one neighbor let him in, he hurriedly and embarrassingly explained his predicament as to not appear threatening. Presumably, the reason for his presence in the building at all had been questioned before.
And after I reached out to shake his hand, he nearly dropped everything he was carrying to do so. He seemed unfamiliar with the custom in the context of people in that building.
When asked his name, he appeared confused and slightly stunned. “My name?” he replied. “Agustin,” he beamed. The relief, pride and fulfillment he got from being able to introduce himself, as a human, not just as a nameless, faceless worker was written all over his face.
It was clear no one had given him that opportunity in a long time.