The internationally respected scholar and director of Brown University’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America analyzes the racial implications in the U.S. of trials like the Zimmerman case.
Brown University’s Tricia Rose
Tavis: Once again, a verdict in a high-stakes trial has shunned and stunned many in this country, and reignited the debate about race and the justice system that has smoldered for generations.
A Florida jury’s decision to acquit George Zimmerman of killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old boy, has outraged many Americans who find it hard to accept that in 2013 an African American teenager could be killed while walking home from a store, and no one is held accountable.
Joining me tonight from New York to talk about where we as a nation go from here, Professor Tricia Rose, the director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University. Professor Rose, good to have you back on this program.
Professor Tricia Rose: Thank you, Tavis. It’s great to be back.
Tavis: Let me start by asking a pretty simple question: Your take on the verdict when you heard it.
Rose: Well, the first feeling was profound sadness, which was trying to translate itself into anger at every turn. Then a strange sort of realization that it really wasn’t that surprising. That, of course, issued a whole nother wave of sadness for whole different reasons.
But those were my initial responses, and I want to stay focused on the emotion and not the outcome, because I think that’s really at the heart of the crisis that we’re in.
Tavis: What’s the value of staying focused on the emotion?
Rose: Well, because it’s very easy to turn to an incredible sense of rage, really, and it’s important to think about how that rage destroys the very efforts for building community.
So keeping the sadness and certainly some anger, but turning it into sort of looking at the circumstances, thinking big picture, helps put this terrible tragedy and the death of Trayvon Martin in a much broader context. That context, it seems to me, is our way out.
Tavis: I sat for a conversation with George Stephanopoulos on ABC yesterday on “This Week,” the Sunday morning program, and this very issue that you’ve raised a moment ago came up in our dialogue yesterday, Tricia, and that is this notion of – and there’s no scientific data that I am aware of to prove this, but you’re an African American, clearly I’m an African American, and if you were, I think, to have polled Black folk days ago in barber shops and beauty salons, nobody expected in Black America that this outcome would be different.
We were hoping against hope that justice might be served here, as we see it, at least, but nobody expected, to your earlier point, that this would end any different. What, then, does it say 50 years after the March on Washington that we’ll celebrate in just a few days from now that so many in the African American community and beyond have so little hope, so little faith and trust in our system of jurisprudence?
Rose: Well, it is a devastating indictment. It seems to me unless one wants to make an irrational argument that all African Americans are paranoid and delusional – of course there are some people who would, but most reasonable people wouldn’t.
If you’re not going to go that route, you have to ask the question why are African Americans so injured, so hurt, so suspicious, so unhopeful about this so-called great democracy with a great judicial system.
When you ask that question seriously, the evidence that mounts for deep, unjust treatment, unjust application of law on all kinds of levels, unjust levels of sentencing, surveillance, illegitimate modes of discrimination in every other facet of everyday life is so overwhelming that the answers are present for us.
In other words, the reason to hope against hope is not unclear. Yet we run from that data. We’re unable to seriously confront it, and retreat to a very almost Pollyanna narrative about the ways in which we’ve improved. Which, by the way, Tavis, I’m very excited to support.
Yes, things have gotten much better in many ways, but they’ve also gotten worse, and if we don’t keep our eyes focused on this in community, in conversation, with serious data, we’re destined to maintain the kinds of inequality that are devastating for communities around the country.
Tavis: As I sat for this conversation that I was a part of yesterday on ABC with this high-profile panel of well-known Americans who were about to engage in a conversation about this verdict, I sat there, Tricia, and what you expect on these Sunday morning shows is really a sort of politically correct, dispassionate discourse about the issues of the day.
That was not the role that I could play yesterday, because for me, this is personal. I raise that because I wonder to what extent so many Americans of any race, color, creed, don’t get this because it is not for them personal.
As I sat on that panel looking at all of my fellow hosts, I didn’t really want to go here. I went a few places that caused some discomfort, as you can imagine, to begin with, but I was thinking at one point to say this and I just didn’t.
Which is I wonder how differently this conversation would be if the moderator’s child had been shot, if the colleagues I was sitting next to, if their child had been shot and killed.
That’s a long way of getting to taking race out of it, and how it is that in this culture, this media culture that we and the pundits talk about this issues all day long in a dispassionate sort of way because we can’t put ourselves in the shoes of person X, Y, or Z.
Rose: Right. Well, the question of empathy is at the heart of any genuine sort of building of community and understanding, and empathy requires that you’re able to put yourself in the shoes of another.
Of course it’s true, when you’re in a professional setting you might in fact lose track of individuals and try to follow a story, but this is more than that. It’s more than just a neutral lack of empathy.
It’s that we have cultivated both a media culture and an educational culture that reduces the ability for whites and others who are more privileged to understand modes of serious racial disadvantage, and the fear and anxiety that particular poor African American men have to deal with to survive in this country.
That is a studied way of not addressing the structural constraints that we’re dealing with now. Tavis, you may have worried yesterday about not being impassioned, but the nation’s media has been deeply impassioned around all kinds of issues – Columbine, Sandy Hook, Hurricane Sandy.
So the notion of being impassioned when one feels implicated and empathetically attached is always present in the media, but it doesn’t get extended to the lived experience of African Americans in anywhere near the way it should.
Tavis: So when I made it to the airport after appearing on the show yesterday and flew back to Los Angeles last night, I landed because I wanted to get – I had to get to a screening of a movie that I’m sure you and others in the country have heard about.
It’s called “Fruitvale Station,” about the killing of Oscar Grant a few years ago in Oakland. So sort of the same situation – Black young male being shot and killed by a white male under the color of enforcement or neighborhood watch – in this case, a BART officer.
The point of this is I got off the plane, went immediately to this screening, and could not get out of my seat at the end of the screening because I could not stop crying. I couldn’t stop crying.
I know the Oscar Grant story very well, but I couldn’t stop crying personally because the movie was so brilliant in connecting us to the humanity of Oscar Grant. I’m going somewhere with this. Give me a second here.
I’m in a movie theater with a whole bunch of white folk, overwhelmingly white, and everybody in that theater is crying. By the way, I should mention that tomorrow night on this program we will have the star of “Fruitvale Station” and the director for a conversation tomorrow night on this program; hence my need to see the movie before they come on tomorrow night.
But I was moved, Tricia, because the movie did a wonderful job of getting to the humanity of Oscar Grant. It’s a long way of asking how much of what happens to Trayvon or to Oscar Grant, to nameless persons into the future, countless persons, perhaps, into the future, because we can’t find a way to revel in the humanity specifically of Black males?
Rose: Right. Well, Tavis, as usual, you’ve hit it right on the head. You see, if you have a system that the evidence overwhelmingly shows not only discriminates but targets, tracks, criminalizes, incarcerates and normalizes a level of social violence.
If you have a system like that, humanizing that constituency fundamentally threatens the logic of that system. It means you have to pursue the injustice of the system.
We’re not comfortable with that because we haven’t really been able to stomach the contradiction that we’ve created by saying that we’re this egalitarian, post-segregationist, inclusive, multiracial democracy – that’s our narrative – and our practice, which falls seriously short.
So to resolve that we just deny it, really. What that film has done and what these stories do is sort of force us into the humanity, the potential humanity. Some resist it. But it’s very hard to resist when it’s done well.
It doesn’t mean that there are no African American young men worthy of punishment; it doesn’t mean that all African Americans are noble, but all African Americans and all people are entitled to an empathetic, fundamental humanity and a portrait of richness in humanity that we don’t see.
Let me just say one more thing – the news media in general, a Pew study very recently showed that almost half of all images of African Americans are either sports-related or them somehow being involved in crime.
Now you can’t constantly narrate people this way and not narrate them in other humanizing ways without dehumanizing people’s perception. That’s the world we’ve created, among other things, that makes it very hard to understand why African Americans are in so much pain, writ large, over what seem to be individual cases.
Tavis: But how can you love or like Barack Obama, how can you love Oprah, how can you love LeBron James, how can you love Tiger Woods – I could do this all day. You know where I’m going with this.
How can you love certain Negroes but not revel and celebrate the humanity of everyday Black people like Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant and others? There’s a disconnect here for me, and I’m not naïve in asking the question.
Rose: No, no, and this is a major crisis that we have. There is no requirement to confront the collective humanity of Black people in the context of celebrity culture, and we’ve created a kind of phantasmagorical, tiny group of highly well compensated, very visible Black people who are Black in a way that do not force us to look at the structures of everyday life.
The most important thing, Tavis, and this is very problematic, I think, is that their success – and I don’t mean this individually. You could name a hundred individuals and I would say the same thing.
Their success largely depends on not bringing to the fore this level of racial discrimination because of the potential downside of making certain markets less interested in them, or audience members are alienating consumers.
So what might have happened in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, where Black athletes, entertainers, musicians would speak freely and consistently about social justice issues, not just because it was a civil rights movement but because that’s what being in the community meant and having a leadership position.
It’s almost impossible to expect mainstream Black leadership in the cultural or social or political arena to do that consistently without jeopardizing that position, and that’s what I call inclusive discrimination.
That’s a very dangerous process, because it makes things look like one thing when they’re really entirely another, and the most visible people, who have the leverage, have really been neutered from being able to contribute in a powerful way.
Tavis: There are two things that have struck me as interesting in the last 24, 48 hours about the path forward with regard to the Obama administration and Black people and the issue of race and this case. Number one, African Americans now have to rely on an African American attorney general, the first African American attorney general, if this case is going to have any additional life.
Now I could be wrong about this; I pray that I am. I don’t think that’s going to happen. The irony is for all the jumping up and down, for all the celebrating, for all the speaking in tongues, for all the adulation, adoration of this administration, Black people now who care about this case – and not just Black folk, people across the board.
But since we’re talking about Black folk in particular, African Americans now are in an interesting position of having to rely on a Black president and a Black attorney general to do something about what happened here, and I don’t think it’s going to happen, for a lot of reasons, including some legal reasons which we won’t get into right now.
But the point is I don’t think it’s going to happen, even though that’s who they have to rely on. Secondly, though – that’s an interesting irony to me. But the second thing here is that the president’s statement, let me just be frank about how I feel about it.
His statement about this was as weak as pre-sweetened Kool-Aid. Now, Black folk who drink pre-sweetened Kool-Aid will understand exactly what I mean by that, but it was weak.
Now it was politically correct, but as much as Barack Obama has tried to avoid the race question in his first and second term, he keeps getting slapped upside the head with all these cases and these incidents that open the door, that give him an opportunity to lead America in a real conversation about race.
He’s punted that opportunity every single time. He is no longer up for reelection, he is safely in a second term, and yet we still get this milquetoast statement out of the White House about this when the majority, the most loyal part of his base, which is African American, is now looking to his administration, to his Justice Department, to do something about it, and everybody’s doing that with bated breath.
That’s a commentary that was way too long, but I want your thought – and I admit that, but again, I can’t be dispassionate about this at this point because I am a Black male and I’ve got seven younger brothers who are Black males.
So forgive me for that little speech, but the point here is I want to get to your take on, since you went there, how our body politic and specifically the Obama administration responds to this, because this is not just an isolated incident.
Rose: Yeah. No, no, it’s not. Well, here’s my feeling, and I said this before Obama was elected the first time. I said that I did not think, as a scholar who teaches multiracial classrooms in college at Brown, mostly white, but multiracial.
That given what I know people do not know about the contemporary modes of structural discrimination, given what I know about the retreat to a strange fantasy world called colorblindness and an even crazier universe called post-race, that I did not think that a Black president could do anything but become, in a sense, an albatross for us getting to a racial conversation.
Now some people think that’s letting Obama off the hook, and that argument could be made. But I think it’s very important to put Obama in context. Obama is operating in an American cultural world that has spent the last 30 years convincing itself that if we stop looking at race we will fix structural racism.
That because we have ended, or shall I say reduced government or state-sponsored segregation and bigotry and publicly acceptable hate speech, that because we’ve largely reduced and almost ended that, that somehow we’ve ended structural racism.
We’ve done no such thing. We’ve just changed the language that frames structural racism. So it seemed to me that Obama was not the person who could do what you’re asking a Black president in a, I call the traditional sense of the word, could do.
I think that that’s the reality. Now here’s my great hope – I’m trying to find a silver lining for us here, Tavis. That is that this could be that moment of recognition that this isn’t going to be just about being Black, but it’s going to be about what’s your politics, and what are you willing to pursue.
This might hold all kinds of leaders accountable at every level – educational leaders, entertainers, political leaders, teachers, school board leaders, police, at every level.
I’m hoping that what we’ll say is how could it be that a Black president couldn’t do this? How could it be, if you’re right, that Holder and the Justice Department couldn’t do this? Was it just the case, or was it that being Black meant that you couldn’t lobby on behalf of Black Americans in any meaningful or fair way.
Tavis: Let me push back on that in two regards.
Tavis: Number one, then, if you’re right about this, then what the heck is the value of us celebrating a Black president? Just say he’s the first person of color. But all this hoopla about his being the first Black president, if it doesn’t (unintelligible) to you in some meaningful way when your back is to the wall and your babies are being shot dead in the streets, if it doesn’t (unintelligible) to you in some meaningful way at that point, number one, what’s the value of having a Black president.
Number two, when it served his purpose during the campaign to have a talk about race from Constitution Hall, I believe, in Philadelphia, but certainly it was in Philadelphia.
When it was to his benefit to talk about race in the campaign to try to put some distance between him and Jeremiah Wright, he gave what many still regard as the most brilliant speech of his political career about race.
So he did talk about it back in the day. So my question – I’m not asking him to do anything, I’m not asking for a higher standard. I’m not asking him to do anything I wouldn’t ask another president to do.
Bill Clinton had a race commission. So I’m not trying to be unfair to the president. I’m just saying you have talked about race before, and if you are the president and you are the best person to help usher us into a conversation about this, why not do it?
Rose: Well, I think he should do it, and I think he should empanel a commission. I think he should empower the discussion, and I think that we can’t keep doing this kind of media dance where we say there are two sides and they’re very polarized.
Well, these are not really just two sides. There are actually many positions. But more importantly, there are positions that are flat-out hostile and unjust, and they shouldn’t be given equal time around – the same kinds of time that would be given to other positions.
This sort of fantasy that all positions are equal has to be ended, and we need to be much more forceful about saying what our vision is, what our goals are, and to pursue that.
So there’s no question to me that more conversation should be had and Obama should do more about it. But to me, I never had the expectations in the first place, and I think part of this is about what are we looking for.
Speaking here as an African American, what expectations do we have? Have we set the terms of the relationship with the American government, with local police, where we have a reason to expect proper and fair and just treatment or not?
I think most people know not, but we’re emotionally engaged, and that injury keeps being reopened. What I would like to encourage us all, progressive whites and liberal whites and brown and Asian Americans, everybody is welcome into this discussion.
What I’m hoping we can do is push back from the emotional into the okay, what are we going to do? When King said, as you opened this whole show, where do we go from here, it was not fantasy talk. It was not, “Let’s all get along.”
It was where do we go from here. How do we change our political expectations, how do we use the immense levels of research that’s out here to show us how bias happens, how Blackness gets understood as a crime historically and culturally and politically and otherwise, et cetera.
So I think that’s what we have to do. We can’t just get caught up in a kind of emotional expectation that to me the evidence is already in for. There isn’t going to be the conversation that you want to have, so the question is now where do we go.
Tavis: So I do have expectation, and disabuse me of this notion if I’m wrong about this. One of my expectations, my greatest expectation, in fact, is not of Barack Obama. Never mind the conversation we’ve just had. That’s not my greatest expectation.
My greatest expectation is that Black people will remain outraged about this, and the things that can be done will be done. Black people have been basically silent. There have been pockets of people raising their voices, but we have not been as vocal as we should have been in this fight about gun control.
So now that Mr. Zimmerman just that quick got his gun back, has his weapon back now, I wonder what Black people are going to say about gun control and about poverty and about so many other issues.
So again, I just think that it’s so lopsided, this honeymoon we’ve been on because we have an African American president. People have gotten lazy and people have been silenced and been sidelined. It takes Trayvon Martin to get our ire up, but I wonder how long that will last. Am I wrong to expect that we ought to do more and say more?
Rose: Oh, no. We ought to do more and say way more. Let me say one quick thing about the amazing mobilization of people of all walks of life in New York and L.A. and Oakland and more planned over the next weeks.
The pictures I’ve seen – I was on my way to New York during the Times Square sort of protest and vigil, and I was just so moved by just the tapestry of different racial and ethnic groups and classes and ages of people saying this is wrong, and this cannot go on.
I think that is the most inspiring thing I’ve seen. Now we have to do more, get involved, and to be critical of commercial media, we have to really pursue their refusal to frame issues in a way that invite Black people.
So when you say where are we on the gun control debate, where are we on the poverty debate, I think it’s not only that the national leadership has been quiet, of various organizations, but that issues that are not sensationalized in their Blackness don’t include Black people sufficiently.
We need to challenge that. The Sunday morning shows are almost 87 percent all white and all male. I’m glad you were there, but in general, that’s not the case. That’s unacceptable.
We need a diverse range of people with a wide range of points of view, and that’s going to have an impact on encouraging the kind of activism that we need to see. So I think it’s a new moment. Maybe I’m being Pollyanna and hopeful, but at least my hope gives us the possibility of making it so.
I think that’s what we need to do. We need to encourage young people that action does make a difference.
Tavis: I appreciate the work that you do at Brown University. I know that you delayed a trip with your brilliant husband, another scholar, Andre Willis. You guys are headed to Paris to do some work there.
Thank you for delaying the trip so that we could have this conversation tonight. Have a wonderful journey and we’ll talk again soon, but thanks for sharing your insights tonight, Professor.
Rose: I will. It was my pleasure, Tavis. Thanks for having me.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.
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