There are those perfect-storm moments that force us to see something we ignored, didn’t know about or didn’t think was our concern. It happened with HIV-AIDS when Hollywood leading man Rock Hudson died of the disease in 1985 and when basketball star Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive and was retiring from the sport in 1991. And it happened with sexual harassment of women in the workplace when Anita Hill testified against Clarence Thomas during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings in October 1991.
Not so when it comes to race.
The issue is so fraught, so weighted with unattended baggage that discussions about the legitimate concerns and frustrations of whites and the double-standards and the limits on liberty faced by African Americans, and black males in particular, are never sustained, if not outright avoided.
The last time this nation was embroiled in a soul-searching conversation on race it was sparked by the arrest of black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his own home by a white police officer in July 2009. At the time, I wrote that “nothing” would come of it because we’ve seen this movie before. The racial flare-up leads to a week or two of soul searching and then we move on. But the killing of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman feels different.
Sure, we are destined to move on. But judging by some of the powerful e-mails I’ve received in reaction to my post on the list of “don’ts” I received as a teenager and my television commentary on this tragedy, many Americans won’t be the same. For the death of an unarmed 17-year-old boy whose black skin and hoodie earned him the suspicion of a 28-year-old gun totting wanna-be cop was “epiphanous.”
The eyes of two dear MSNBC colleagues welled with tears as we talked about my initial piece on Trayvon. The discovery that black parents had to endure an extra burden in order to keep their children safe broke their hearts. And then there were the e-mails. They came from blacks of all ages recounting stories of disrespect and danger. They came from whites with their own stories to tell.
“I am a middle-aged white woman in Birmingham, Ala., and had never really considered how fraught a young black male’s daily life could be,” Mary Burge wrote in an e-mail after seeing me discussing “the don’ts” with Rev. Al Sharpton on MSNBC. “More than anything, I am appalled at my own ignorance, but I am also so sad. I am the mother of a son who has never had to be cautioned not to run with anything in his hand, or warned how to behave so as not to attract attention. I could weep that your mother was not able to do the same. We are graced with very few truly epiphanous moments in life, but your interview last night was one of them for me. I will never again be so casually unaware.”
Diana Levan wrote, “I am a 60-year-old white female. My sister has a 21-year-old adopted biracial son. This could have been him. My heart is broken for this family.”
Miki Straughan recounted a story from 50 years ago in New Orleans where she hired a woman to help with her ironing. After lunch one day, Straughan’s blond, blue-eyed, five-year-old daughter played with the black woman’s 4-year-old grandson.
The grandmother proceeded to tell her adorable, chubby little black grandson NOT to get on the swing, NOT to touch the little white girl, Not to push her too hard on the swing. Not to run after her.
I said, “For heaven’s sake, he’s just a little boy.” I never forgot her response. She said: “You’re going back to Seattle but he has to live here . . . and I’m saving his life.”
“As a mother of two white children and the grandmother of an adopted African-American toddler whom I adore and care for three days a week, my heart goes out to the Martin family,” wrote another reader. “I have my own very personal fears for my grandson. He is well regarded now, as a darling and gifted toddler, but I am realistic in knowing that it will be all too soon that he will reach puberty and there will be those who will regard him as Mr. Zimmerman viewed Trayvon. [I]t is a tremendous worry to me because as a white family, we do not have personal experiences to even know all that we should be teaching him in order to do our best to protect him.”
But it was an e-mail from Scott Blackson at the outset of the national outcry that signaled to me that the list of “don’ts” was having an impact on the latest national conversation on race. He’d heard me last Monday on NPR discussing the Trayvon case.
I have been following the Trayvon Martin case and had tried to keep an open mind. Of COURSE anyone’s mother is going to stick up for him, say he was a good boy. I had to wonder what he might have done to make someone so scared, or angry, or whatever, to pursue him and kill him. Until yesterday, I sort of thought “self defense” laws are a good thing. Having a business in a transitional neighborhood, I often have people come into my store and make me uncomfortable. I don’t own a gun or a weapon of any kind. I wonder how *I* would defend myself if someone came in to rob me or worse. (I’ve not yet found an answer I can live with). So, initially, I wondered if the man who [killed] Trayvon Martin really DID feel threatened, or if Trayvon actually DID something to make this man feel his life was in danger. I can relate to being in danger much more than I can relate to making someone else feel in danger.
When I heard you talking on NPR yesterday, it became clear to me. As a gay man, I’ve often felt intimidated, or unwelcome when I go into “the wrong place.” But I’ve never had to worry that someone might shoot me for running in public, or carrying something in my hand that might be construed as a weapon, or that when stopped by the police I’ll end up dead. You speaking of your mother’s warning to you made me completely understand how that must feel.. . .
I watched TV last night and heard the 911 calls, saw the photos of Trayvon and [Zimmerman], and it all became clear to me that his only offense was being black and being in public.
I haven’t seen and heard such a universal outcry over the plight of black men since the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo. He was the unarmed African immigrant who died in a hail of 41 bullets from undercover undercover New York City cops. There were demonstrations, arrests and serious discussion about the risks faced by black men in general and those having to deal with Mayor Giuliani’s NYPD. Hearts were moved. Minds were changed. And the nation moved on, as it always does, but it was in a better place because of it.
In that 2009 piece about the arrest of Harvard professor Gates, I asked whether we as a nation would listen to each other with an open mind to try to understand where the other comes from on matters of race. The reaction to the killing of Trayvon Martin has given me hope that America has a new understanding of a perennial fear among blacks and that we’ll all use this tragedy to further engage in the soul-searching President Obama urged us to do on Friday. Yes, we’ll move on from this, too. But we will be better people in a better place because of it.