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After Trayvon, Renewed Conversation on Stigma Facing Black Men in America

July 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The killing of Trayvon Martin provoked candid reflection from President Barack Obama on the subject of discrimination and American race relations. Nathan McCall, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Bishop Harry Jackson Jr. and Michael Melton join Jeffrey Brown to continue the conversation on life and perception for black men in the U.S.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a conversation about being a black man in America today.

Last Friday, President Obama spoke about the issue bluntly and emotionally.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And the fact that a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African-American boys are more violent — using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.

JEFFREY BROWN: Speaking a day before planned protests over the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the president said the circumstances of Trayvon Martin’s death at just 17 years old played to a larger issue.

BARACK OBAMA: We need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys? And this is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about. There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?

JEFFREY BROWN:  His words have become part of a larger conversation about the challenges faced by black men in American society. Yesterday, Trayvon Martin’s father, Tracy, thanked the president at a forum brought together by the Congressional Black Caucus.

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TRACY MARTIN, father of Trayvon Martin: It sparks the conversation in every household over the dinner table. And that conversation is, what can we do as parents, what can we do as men, what can we do as fathers, what can we do as mentors to stop this from happening to your child?

JEFFREY BROWN:  That discussion will continue tomorrow, as members of the caucus travel to Chicago for a summit on the issue of urban gun violence.

And we have our own discussion now. Nathan McCall is professor of African-American studies at Emory University and author of “Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America.” Khalil Gibran Muhammad is executive director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. Bishop Harry Jackson is a Pentecostal bishop who serves as the senior pastor at Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland. And Michael Melton is an attorney president of 100 Black Men of Greater Washington, a group of businessmen and professionals who mentor middle- and high-school-aged African-Americans.

And welcome to all of you.

Khalil Muhammad, I will start with you.

Did the president frame the issue well? What did he get right? Where, if at all, did he fall short?

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library: Well, I think he did get three things right.

He articulated that race matters, that history matters, and that our black children matter in this country. And those are three things that are incredibly important, given the high stakes in this matter. We have seen in just the past few days a huge racial divide on the question of justice in this country, with a Pew Research poll showing that 86 percent of white Americans when asked about the verdict agree with the verdicts — I’m sorry — 86 percent of African-American are dissatisfied with the verdict, as compared with 30 percent of whites.

That is a gigantic divide. And it calls us to the importance of the speech. It may be fifth year into his term, a term that has not been characterized by a lot of presidential leadership on the question of race in this country. He’s spoken to the NAACP. He’s spoken to the Congressional Black Caucus at key moments.

So I think what we see here is for the first time is really important, timely presidential leadership, and it matters because the divide about how the criminal justice system has stigmatized and criminalized an entire generation of young people is growing and is significant and must be addressed.

 JEFFREY BROWN:  All right, Nathan McCall, same question to you. What did you hear? What did the president get right? Where might he have fallen short?

NATHAN MCCALL,  Emory University: Well, yes, I think the president did a great job of providing a nuanced, heartfelt view of the experience that many Americans, especially African-American males, experience in this country on a daily basis.

It was important, I think, that he spoke from the heart. I notice he didn’t have — it wasn’t a prepared speech. And he was sincere. So, I think it meant a lot to many people to hear the president of the United States validating the experiences of African-American males, whose experiences are often dismissed.

On the flip side, one of the things that I wish that he had talked about a bit more is the other side of the coin. Trayvon Martin didn’t kill himself. And so the discussion that we should be having is — shouldn’t be restricted to African-American males. I think it needs to be — there’s a broader discussion to be had, and I look forward to talking about that.

JEFFREY BROWN:  All right, Bishop Jackson, I will try to ask a difficult question as simply as possible. What is the problem for or of black men in this society? How do you define the problem?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON JR., Hope Christian Church: Well, I think there is cultural rejection. There are still racism that exists.

And I think that we as the church — I don’t want to be pejorative or negative — we haven’t stepped up at the level that we should. The civil rights movement was led by the church, changed hearts, then laws. Today, we’re trying to get politicians to do what only the church can do, and more or less, that’s what the president said: I don’t want to get into political speech.

So I think black young men with broken homes need surrogate families, instead of gangs. And I think churches and groups like the 100 Black Men are prepared to take up the slack, but one little organization can’t do it. We need multiple churches. In my view, we need black, white, Hispanic churches working in tough urban areas together, and we can’t let this thing called racism divide us.

JEFFREY BROWN:  And you’re speaking here as a — socially conservative.

HARRY JACKSON JR.: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Most issues with the president, you don’t agree, because we have talked about this on the program before.

HARRY JACKSON, JR.: Yes. Yes, but I think he did a great job.

In this thing, I think he spoke to blacks. I, too, wish he had spoken more also to whites. I was a program today, radio program, where whites were all upset because they see this as divisive, as opposed to giving a little bit of a balm of healing to black people who feel left out.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Let me ask Michael Melton, what part of this can be addressed only within the black community? And what part must be addressed by the nation as a whole?

MICHAEL MELTON, 100 Black Men of Greater Washington: Well, I think, within the black community, we need to teach our children to stop being afraid of the police.

For example, if Trayvon Martin had called 911 and said, I am being stalked by someone as I’m walking home, then they would have had a recorded record of himself trying to defend himself. But since there was a fear of, we don’t want to get the police engaged in our business, he didn’t make that simple call. And I think that would have been something that we individually could teach ourselves.

In the bigger community, I think if each one of us just takes the example, look, am I being subtly racist or overtly racist, black, white, Hispanic, whatever, am I having a problem with this person because of race or just because of something that happened, and if we just all retreat a step and just think openly about what we’re doing, I think that will help the country.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Khalil Muhammad, what is your answer to that? What must be addressed in just the African-American community? What part is for the nation as a whole?

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: Well, I think that there’s always room for teaching values, right?

This has often been a question of personal responsibility. And, frankly, that’s been the most consistent message within the black community. It comes from the pulpit. It comes from teachers. It comes from mentors. But the fact remains that Trayvon Martin’s behavior had nothing to do with personal responsibility.

And we must realize that what happened to Trayvon and what happened in the Zimmerman acquittal are the same coin as the problem of stop, question, and frisk in New York or racial profiling in general. In other words, we have completely legitimized in this society the presumption of guilt among young and adult black men in this country, essentially saying it is OK to be fearful, that that fear is a reflection of the statistics in our society, and their individuality is completely subsumed.

And that is a problem for — that is an educational problem. It is a cultural problem. It is a problem that essentially black people can’t fix, either in the political system or in the white homes and Latino homes and Asian homes that have tremendous ambivalence about whether a black person’s individuality actually counts and matters in this society.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Let me ask — I want to bring back Bishop Jackson here, because you talked to us earlier today on the phone to one of our prosecutors. You mentioned a culture of grievance in the black community that you have seen at times.

HARRY JACKSON JR.: Yes, I think, unfortunately, President Obama’s statements to many kind of fit into that politics of grievance category, which means, we cry out about something, then we don’t follow through.

I think we need to honor his message to us and take decisive action. Sooner or later, with the first black president and secretaries of state and others who are black, folks are going to say, hey, you black folks have your own problems. Solve it yourself. I think it’s time for to us take aggressive action.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what does that mean?

HARRY JACKSON JR.: Well, what it means for me is in Sanford, Fla., this past year, many don’t know 65 pastors met together about a year ago. There was no riot in Sanford itself. I think we have got to get the church involved.

Other groups can do their thing. But I think we have the after-school programs. We need to engage kids from broken homes, give them a vision and incentive for their lives. And we have got to do it and take action now.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Nathan McCall, what would you like to see? It occurs to me all — I think all four of are you parents. You all work with young people. What do you tell them?

NATHAN MCCALL: Well, if I may, I would like to address that phrase the culture of grievance.

JEFFREY BROWN:  OK.

NATHAN MCCALL: I have a bit of a problem with that because I think, again, we’re going back to blaming the victims.

And you can’t tell people who are hurt, people who are in pain how to suffer or how to grieve. This — this murder of Trayvon Martin has been one of a number of murders that have happened over the years that have — and the outcome has been grievous. And so I think we have to be very, very careful with regard to that, though I agree that there are things that we can do within the black communities.

Again, I don’t think the problems that exist in the black communities exist in a void. I think they were created by a larger reality which relates to white America and our history in this country. So there are a lot of things that we need to talk about. But it’s not only black people that need to do self-evaluation and thinking about how we’re going to approach problems with us.

The problem doesn’t lie exclusively with us as African-Americans.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Michael Melton, you are in the mentoring business, right?

MICHAEL MELTON: Yes, I am.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Your organization — so you’re working with young African-American men and women, but what do you tell them? How do they — what’s the key, the most important thing for them to negotiate their way through all the things we have talked about?

MICHAEL MELTON: Well, I try to tell them to be aware of your surroundings and how other people are perceiving you, and that you don’t need to be defensive, but you need to actually think more than a normal person would about, can this be perceived incorrectly, and be nonaggressive just naturally, and just try to think about that, because people are going to sometimes see you incorrectly.

But a conversation — hey, who are you? What do you want? I’m just trying to walk home. Was there something that could have defused it? But on the other end, I think that self-defense in this case shouldn’t have been applicable at all. For example, if you incorrectly approach someone because you think they’re doing something wrong, and then whatever ensues after that, it should be your fault.

And that could be a modification to the law that will make it more justice.

JEFFREY BROWN:  All right, a big, big subject that we have just started, but we will end it there.

Michael Melton, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Nathan McCall, and Bishop Harry Jackson, thank you, all four, very much.

MICHAEL MELTON: Thank you, sir.

HARRY JACKSON JR.: Thank you.

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: Thank you.