“Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot in things racial, we have always been, and we, I believe, continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards…Though race-related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about things racial. This is truly sad. Given all that we as a nation went through during the civil rights struggle, it is hard for me to accept that the result of those efforts was to create an America that is more prosperous, more positively race-conscious, and yet is voluntarily socially segregated.”
Four years ago, Eric Holder made these remarks only a month after his appointment as the first black Attorney General. I don’t agree with his delivery, because creating a real dialogue on race involves humility and not blame, but his words ring true and his assessment isn’t too far off. For as long as I can remember, a meaningful discussion on race has rarely ever happened, and when it does, it usually doesn’t wield fruitful results. I think most of this has to do with the fact that either many people are tired of talking about race, or they–both black and white–have forced themselves to believe that racism and its effects aren’t present today, in 2013.
But with the murder of Travyon Martin in 2012, a deeper dialogue on race began to take root when Barack Obama, the first black President, addressed race head-on by saying “If i had a son, he’d look like Travon.” With very little ambiguity, Obama attached himself to the issue of racism in America. And then again, in 2013, after the verdict of the Zimmerman trial, Obama reiterated that statement a year-and-a-half prior, saying “When Travyon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying this is that Travon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
Obama made it clear that not only is racism still as prevalent today as when he was a youth, but he continued to show how commonly it is manifested in the lives of African-Americans:
“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. There are very few African-American men in this country who have not had the experience of being followed when they are shopping at a department store. That includes me. There are probably very few African-American men who have not 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 have not had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had the chance to get off. That happens often.”
And it wasn’t just Obama who made the connection to race behind the Zimmerman trial. Through my Twitter and Facebook news-feeds, I saw people being able to realize that racism still existed and persisted in many people’s’ lives. I saw some of my prior posts on the trial being positively received by others. I saw people actively expressing their sorrow with the verdict, and posting other racial injustices that had occurred in the wake of the trial. What I was witnessing was the “cowardice” that Eric Holder mentioned begin to be wiped away as Americans–of all racial backgrounds–started to open their thoughts to some real truths this country had so long avoided acknowledging. I saw a collective consciousness growing.
All of this is great, but just talking about racism isn’t going to be enough to end it. In the blog, “A Change Is Gonna Come“, Phillipe Copeland discusses what’s needed for an effective race dialogue:
“Simply the fact that we are talking about race does not mean that we are talking about it in a meaningful way. This is why I believe many of us leave such conversations with an intuitive sense that something was missing. Just like social workers and other helping professionals, we are all vulnerable to the delusion that talk alone is evidence of work getting done.”
Just recently, someone shared their reaction to the Zimmerman verdict. “The Trayvon Martin case,” she said, “was the first time that the racism of the people around me was so vividly obvious to me. That and it highlighted just the nature of racism and hatred that people ignore or deny. It mobilized–and inspired–me to make the elimination of racism not just something I believe in, but something I want to actively be a part of.”
We’re not going to find answers today on how to end racism, but the mindset this woman holds needs to be the mindset we all have–that what we need to take from this case isn’t just an acceptance of racism being present, but also an attitude that becomes determined to eradicate it.
So, the Zimmerman case may be over, but where do we go from here? We had our week of angry posts and tweets, but now is the time to breathe calmly and think clearly on what we all can do–regardless of our race–in creating a future where boys like Trayvon won’t be senselessly murdered, and where men like Zimmerman would have to pay for the crimes they commit.