Mr. Obama’s remarks last Friday on the Trayvon Martin verdict were powerful and spoken from the heart. I have been waiting years for him to summon the courage to talk about race in such personal terms. However, his words made me look inward in ways that I did not anticipate.
What really made me think is the context he provided about race. I have never heard such a personal and balanced description of what it is like to grow up as a black man in the America. Day to-day life makes it so easy to become narrowly focused on our world, the one we know best. Psychological comfort is always the path of least resistance.
The president’s speech forced me to look at my own life. There is not a prejudiced bone in my body. I am likely racially naive. And that is a different matter altogether. But growing up as a white man in America did not lead to an outcome where hate toward people of color filled my soul.
It seems to me that, if we are going to make progress toward a society based on racial equality, a discussion that includes all perspectives is in order. Let’s lay the cards on the table and reach a more enlightened understanding. Let me share my own life experience with you.
Growing up white in Poland, Ohio meant I mostly came into contact with people who looked different from me in Youngstown. At first, I sensed we viewed each other with equal suspicion. It was if they could tell I was a whitey from the burbs. But there was never any fear on my side at all. I suspect, however, that the feelings of mistrust on their part never went away.When I went away to college at DePauw University, my experience was largely the same. Even though I played basketball with my classmates who were black or Hispanic, once the game ended it was as if a light switch was flipped. They went with their buddies in one direction and I in the other. Even at parties, a connection just could not be struck.As a fairly enlightened person, the psychological segregation that existed between races bothered the hell out of me. I am very curious to see to what extent this self-imposed division still exists at universities across America today.
This brings me back to that tragic night when Trayvon Martin was killed. I can’t help but wonder if both parties viewed each other with equal suspicion, fear, and hate. On a person to person basis, there was an irrational break with sanity. Why else would George Zimmerman take the law into his own hands at 7 in the evening. He had no business carrying a handgun.
We will likely never know the blow-by-blow truth of what happened the night Trayvon was killed. But what the president made plainly clear in his remarks is we better damn well start addressing the context that led to the tragedy. The work ahead will be tough and full of failures.
A cleansing needs to take place on a personal basis regardless if you are white or black. No amount of laws or regulations will end the racial divisions that persist in America. Relying on government to solve the problem is a cop-out. Failing to come to terms with racism on a person to person, community to community basis will only ensure more young men like Trayvon Martin end up dead.
And that is not the kind of America I want my children to inherit.