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Black Americans Welcome Obama's Entry To Race Discussion

A man holds up a sign at the "Justice for Trayvon" rally in downtown Chicago on Saturday.
A man holds up a sign at the "Justice for Trayvon" rally in downtown Chicago on Saturday.

As soon as he made his remarks on race Friday, President Obama was part of an intense conversation around the nation.

In dozens of cities across the country on Saturday, protesters held coordinated rallies and vigils over the not-guilty verdict in the shooting death of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. Many African-Americans insist that understanding the context for black distress over the Zimmerman verdict is key to honest discussions about race.

In Washington, D.C., Djems Wolf Narcisse was visiting the Martin Luther King Memorial. He was not at the D.C. protest, but he does say that few white Americans can understand why black Americans don't look at race the same way they do.

"You know we're not looked upon as the people who fought for this country; we're looked upon as the burden of this country," he says.

White Americans, Narcisse says, probably didn't get the president's story of being followed while shopping because it isn't part of their experience, as it is his.

"That's what you gotta think about," he says. "When you walk into a store, do they follow you around? Have you ever had that happen to you?"

In Atlanta, Emory University professor Tyrone Forman likes that Obama encouraged white Americans to consider what might happen if the situation were reversed. What, Forman asks, if Trayvon Martin had been Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg — who also wears hoodies, just as Treyvon did the night he was killed?

"We can imagine a very different scenario would have transpired that evening in Sanford, Florida," Forman said. "And I think it's that context that President Obama was alluding to, and trying to open a conversation about."

Included in that conversation are Stand Your Ground laws, which many view as unevenly applied. Stand Your Ground was not used in the Zimmerman case, but many felt it played an unspoken role in the trial. It was very much on the minds of protesters around the country, like Ashley Franklin, in Los Angeles.

"I feel like Stand Your Ground laws are something tangible that you can grab hold to, and try to change, right?" Franklin says. "But I think that's much larger than just Stand Your Ground laws. It's more systemic."

She says that until all America gets that the system treats some of its citizens differently from others, the problem will persist.

For some people, understanding how different life outside the mainstream can be is a challenge.

Journalist Sylvester Monroe grew up in one of Chicago's toughest projects, light years away from the critics who say the president is ignoring black violence and crime. Monroe's book, Brothers, chronicles how hard it is for poor young black men to buy into — let alone achieve — the American Dream. He liked that the president admitted crime is a problem in many black communities while giving context to the problem.

"Yes, it is absolutely true that a disproportionate number of crimes are committed by young black men — but he said there's a reason for that," Monroe said. "Not an excuse. A reason."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.