On Friday President Barack Obama picked at America’s racial wound, and it bled a bit.
Despite persistent attempts by some to divest the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman tragedy of its racial resonance, the president refused to allow it. During a news briefing, Mr. Obama spoke of the case in an achingly personal tone, saying: “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
With that statement, an exalted black man found kinship with a buried black boy, the two inextricably linked by inescapable biases, one expressing the pains and peril of living behind the veil of his brown skin while the other no longer could. With his statements, the president dispensed with the pedantic and made the tragedy personal.
He spoke of his own experiences with subtle biases, hinting at the psychological violence it does to the spirit — being followed around in stores when shopping, hearing the locking of car doors when you approach, noticing the clutching of purses as you enter an elevator.
In “The Souls of Black Folk,” W.E.B. Du Bois described this phenomenon thus:
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
Surely, much has changed in America since Du Bois wrote those lines more than a century ago. Bias tends to be expressed structurally rather than on an individual level. But the “two-ness” remains. And while words are not actions or solutions, giving voice to a people’s pain from The People’s house has power.
On Friday the president reached past one man and one boy and one case in one small Florida town, across centuries of slavery and oppression and discrimination and self-destructive behavior, and sought to place this charged case in a cultural context.
There is no denying that an enormous amount of violence, physical and psychological, is aimed at black men. That violence is both interracial and intraracial. Too many black men inflict that violence on one another, feeding a self-destructive cycle of victimization until hope is crushed to the ground and opportunity seems beyond the sky.
All of this must be considered when we speak of race, and those conversations cannot be a communion of the aggrieved. All parties must acknowledge and accept their role in the problems for us to solve them. Only when the burden of bias is shared — only when we can empathize with the feelings of “the other” — can we move beyond injury to healing.
Yes, we should encourage young black men to value themselves and make better choices that reflect that value. But we must also acknowledge that poverty is sticky and despair dogged. The legacy effects of American oppression, which destroyed families, ingrained cultural violence, and denied generations of African-Americans the luxury of accruing and transferring intergenerational wealth, cannot simply be written off.
Most blacks don’t believe that racial prejudice is the whole of black people’s problems today, or is even chief among them. According to a Gallup poll released Friday, only 37 percent of blacks believe that the fact that they, on average, have worse jobs, income and housing, is “mostly” because of discrimination.
But it would be hard to argue that bias plays no role, even if it’s immeasurable.
That’s why there was value in the president acknowledging his “two-ness” and connecting with Trayvon Martin, because biases and stereotypes and violence are part of a black man’s burden in America, no matter that man’s station.
We could all have been Trayvon.
Charles Blow is a columnist for The New York Times.