Op-Ed: Shooting Of Black Teen Reveals 'Blindness'

Read The Op-Eds

Jonathan Capehart's "Under 'suspicion': The Killing of Trayvon Martin" in The Washington Post

Leonard Pitts' "Tragic teen shooting raises old fears, questions" in The Miami Herald

Three weeks after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, no arrests have been made in what critics are calling a case of racial profiling. Columnist Leonard Pitts says the incident exposes society's "blindness" to African-Americans.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

And now, the "Opinion Page." The death of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old shot and killed by a crime-watch volunteer in Florida, prompted Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post to recall "the conversation" - what his mother told him on his first day at a predominantly white school. It prompted Leonard Pitts Jr., of the Miami Herald, to cite Ralph Ellison and the "Invisible Man." Both writers join us in just a moment. We'd like to hear from African-American men in this segment, about the conversations you remember.

Who talked to you about how to behave downtown? - 800-989-8255 is the phone number; email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts is with us from his home in Maryland; Jonathan Capehart, from his office here in Washington. And let me begin with you, Jonathan Capehart. Remind us what your mother told you.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: It happened after we left the sort of sheltered environment of Hazlet, New Jersey, in sort of central New Jersey, and moved back up to Newark when my mom remarried. And the conversation that we had was just a series of rules for my own safety. At the time, I was 16. They were, don't run in public; don't run while carrying anything in your hand - the first one being, you know, lest anyone think you're suspicious; and the second one being, lest anyone think you stole something. And the third was, don't talk back to the police - lest you give them a reason to take you to jail, or worse.

CONAN: And were - that must have been a stark moment.

CAPEHART: Yes, it was because - you know - as kids, as children, you think that, you know, the world is open and welcoming and friendly because that's the way you've lived your life - at least, that's the way I lived my life. And to be told that no, there are limits on what you can do simply because of who you are - yes, it was a bit jarring.

CONAN: And a conversation you recall today, the - we're not exactly sure of all the details of the story there in Florida, but it appeared that that young man was doing none of those things when he got into trouble - trouble that caused his death.

CAPEHART: Right. And that's what was so troubling to me, listening to the Zimmerman 911 call. I woke up at 6:30 on a Sunday morning, I was so troubled by it, and had to start writing because listening to that man describe what we only know from news reports - but all the news reports about Trayvon Martin are glowing; that this was a good kid who, all he did was go to the local 7-Eleven to buy a can of ice tea and Skittles, and was just feet from his relatives' home before he was killed.

And to listen to that and to hear the person - to hear Zimmerman say that he looked suspicious, that he looked like he was on drugs, just tugged at my heart in a way that, you know, took me back to that time when I was 16 years old, having that conversation. I'm now 44. So this rings very true and close to heart.

CONAN: Do you have children of your own?

CAPEHART: I do not.

CONAN: Well, let's bring Leonard Pitts into the conversation. He's the syndicated columnist, and his column appeared in the Miami Herald. Nice to have you back on the program. And we're having a little trouble connecting. Leonard Pitts, are you there? Well, we're hearing you very vaguely, but we'll try to reconnect. Jonathan Capehart, you did write that the parents of African-American children, particularly sons, have to be clutching them a little closer to home today.

CAPEHART: Yes. Because, you know, as I wrote - in the blog piece that I wrote, the very first sentence is that one of the burdens of being a black male is carrying the heavy weight of other people's suspicion. Trayvon Martin was just coming from 7-Eleven, doing nothing but trying to get back home - apparently, to watch the NCAA. And because allegedly, George Zimmerman thought he was up to no good, thought that he looked suspicious, he's dead.

And to, you know, look at the interviews that Trayvon Martin's mother has given over the last few days, they're dignified, but they also are interviews of a mother in pain. And the interview I saw this morning, when she asked the producers of "The Today Show" not to play - replay the 911 calls in her earpiece, she said that there was no doubt in her mind that the screaming for help in one of the many 911 calls, she said, that was Trayvon screaming. That was my baby screaming for help.

How does that not affect anyone who has children, and especially anyone who has black, male children who then they have to send out on a Monday morning to go to school, hoping and praying that they don't meet a fate that Trayvon Martin faced?

CONAN: Leonard Pitts, you - I think you're with us now?

LEONARD PITTS, JR: I hope so.

CONAN: Oh, there we go. OK. Nice to have you back on the program. We apologize for the technical errors. And as we talked to you - at the beginning of your column, you cited Ralph Ellison, "The Invisible Man"; the fact that, at least on the basis of what we know so far, this crime-watch volunteer did not see an individual.

PITTS: No. You know, that's the point that I tried to make in my - in the column that you referenced; was that he looked at this boy, and he did not see a boy. He saw, you know, he didn't see a boy, you know, coming home from 7-Eleven. He saw a threat. He saw, I think, the sum of all his fears. The things that he saw were more reflective of, you know, what was in his head and what was in his soul, rather than were reflective of what I think Trayvon Martin was probably doing, you know, on that street, you know, walking home. It's just a total cognitive disconnect. And what's frustrating, you know, is that that disconnect is still with us 60 years after Ellison wrote "The Invisible Man."

CONAN: That conversation that Jonathan Capehart described, of how to behave around white people, did someone talk to you about that?

PITTS: I've had that - I didn't have to have the discussion about how to behave around white people 'cause I grew up in South L.A. and there were no white people - with the exception of teachers and police officers. But I have had similar discussions with my kids and in particular, my sons when I was teaching them to drive. There was a specific part of the lesson which was, OK, this is how to behave when you're pulled over - not if, but when you're pulled over.

And it really - you know, I really resented having to give them that lesson. They were kind of confused by it, and I resented it. Now, you know, we're 10 years and more beyond my teaching them how to drive, and they're no longer confused by it because they're stopped on a regular basis. But it was really - it really angered me and frustrated me to have to add this, you know, this particular lesson to what is otherwise a right of passage that all parents have, you know, have had to experience in teaching their kids how to drive.

CONAN: And we'll get some listeners involved in the conversation in just a minute. But Leonard Pitts Jr., you also wrote that we can't ignore everything that has improved over all those years since Ralph Ellison wrote "The Invisible Man," yet some things haven't.

PITTS: Yeah, much has improved. But I think that we get in trouble - excuse me - when we believe that those improvements have, you know, brought us to - as Dr. King, you know, said in his famous speech - the promised land. I think that, you know, it's important to recognize and to honor improvement, but also important to recognize and understand that there is a long way yet to go.

And I think this is where we get in trouble, in terms of quantifying racial progress. Some of us want to fixate on how far we have come, to the exclusion of how far we have yet to go, while others, you know, fixate on the other. And the fact of the matter is that if you want to get a true picture of that progress, you cannot have one without the other.

CONAN: And Jonathan Capehart, I know you've got to leave us to go to another appointment. But I did want to ask you before you go, as you think about those lessons your mother told you all those years ago - and the necessity of them still, today.

CAPEHART: Yes. I remember my editor, when he read the piece, he sent me an email saying, very good piece; this is very important. And I thanked him, and I told him what I said at the beginning of the interview - how I didn't sleep Saturday night, and I got up early Sunday morning because I had to write. And I had to write because Trayvon could have been me all those years ago. But Trayvon still could be me, given the way things are; given the weight of other people's suspicions that will follow me and unfortunately, other African-American men for as long as they live.

The one thing that I hope is that through Trayvon's death, that we can continue to have the discussion that needs to take place and continually take place; to make sure that particularly, African-American boys and men are seen as individuals - as Leonard said in his column, in this interview - seen as individuals and not as a faceless, nameless threat that is out there to do harm.

CONAN: Thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

CAPEHART: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Jonathan Capehart, a columnist for the Washington Post. His blog post "Under 'Suspicion': The Killing Of Trayvon Martin" appeared at the newspaper's website. He joined us by phone from his office here in Washington, D.C. Leonard Pitts Jr. is also with us; Pulitzer Prize-winning, syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald. His piece, "Tragic Teen Shooting Raises Old Fears And Questions. And you can get links to both those pieces at our website. Go to npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION. And let's go to Rich, and Rich is on the line with us from Rochester, New York.

RICH: Hello. How are you doing?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

RICH: I'm calling because this incident has touched me like I cannot believe, as a father of a young, black man; as a black man - and this total frustration I have with listening to the press and - not to be disrespectful - to the white press - keep telling me how I am racist because I have these fears. I am racist because I tell my son to watch where he's going. I am racist because every night my son goes out, I have a picture of him being accosted because he's a young, black man; a young, black man who has no aggression in him, no - nothing. As a black man who watches my brother's wife, who's a white lady, raising a young, black man to be this nice, young, white man in a nice, young, white world - not seeing this fear, and this real fear, that I live with; and every black father, every black uncle and every black male lives with every single day of his life.

And yet, we are told constantly, there's something wrong with you. You get the Glenn Beck that says, Obama hates black people - or, hates white people. And for some reason, we're racists because we will speak of our fears. And because of this, we have a fear. Somehow, our fears are racist. It is so frustrating, so disgusting; and we will live with it every single day of our lives.

CONAN: Leonard Pitts, I wondered if you had a response.

PITTS: Ha, I'm just glad to know I'm not alone. It is a strange and rare day when I haven't been called a racist, you know, half a dozen times. And I've come to understand that this is sort of - for a lot of people, particularly, a lot of people - you know, unfortunately - on the political right, this is sort of a political judo, a little - a political jujitsu; taking away the word, or trying to render the word unusable - much in the way that the word feminist was rendered unusable to the point that, you know, a lot of young women refuse to identify themselves in that way; much in the way the word liberal was made into a dirty word.

Now, we're after the word racist. And there is statistical evidence - and I forget the exact number, but it was somewhere in the vicinity of 50 percent of white Americans now feeling that the greatest racism in America comes from African-Americans. Which would be amusing, you know, if it did not have real-world consequences; if that sort of thing did not have real-world consequences. What makes it amusing is that there is no statistical standard by which you can illustrate, or prove, that ridiculous thesis. And yet, as long as people are emotionally wedded to it, as long as they are invested to it, then you have to, you know, treat it as a reality.

You have to deal with the fact that, as my readers have told me frequently, talking about racism - which is something I do fairly frequently - talking about racism is racist. I don't hear that when, you know - they don't talk about, you know, police brutality as being racist. They don't talk about economic, you know, disparity as being racist. They don't talk about criminal injustice system as being racist, But they will talk - they will explicitly say that talking about race is racist, which is an incredibly frustrating thing to experience.

CONAN: Rich, thanks very much for the call. We're talking with Leonard Pitts. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And let's see if we go next to - this is Mark(ph), and Mark on the line from Eugene, Oregon.

MARK: Hi. Can you hear me?

CONAN: Go ahead, please. Yeah. You're on the air.

MARK: Cool. I guess the conversation I had - the talk that I had came from black scientists, doctors, lawyers; people who were basically in mainstream white institutions who, also being psychiatrists and doctors, basically had their own parallel science to - just like, you know, you can talk about the white press.

So my talk came after my first racial attack in Disneyland at 7, in 1962. And the talk that I got was the Emmett Till talk, which was quite a leap to, you know, wrap my "Romper Room," "Bozo the Clown," "Sheriff John" mind around at the time. But essentially, I was made aware that OK, if you can get attacked in Disneyland, no place in America is safe for you.

So what you're going to have to do is, you know - it was kind of like you have to be twice as good to be considered equal. And that meant speaking the king or queen's English better than the king or queen, and knowing the king's history better than the king or queen; and also realizing that it's not - if for example, if you're in the South that, you know, lots of people can look at you with suspicion, but you hold yourself high.

But, you know, the line of attack often, especially here in Oregon - which is a state that was created to exclude black people and was admitted to the Union on that basis so basically, that's kind of like everywhere - you're going to basically, have to be viewed by suspicion with people who are surrogate white people. So, I mean, I - we don't know much about Zimmerman's motives, but looking at a picture of him, he can't pass the paper bag test, which is also part of the hidden curriculum of being black, you know? If you can't - if you're darker than a brown paper bag, you're not considered white. So we'll often see, you know, black policemen, you know, being even more redneck than redneck policemen, to prove that they're not showing you favoritism - so internalizing that racial self-hatred.

So that's all part of a science of dealing with racism that you look at. It's not paranoia. It's looking at OK, how do you successfully deal with this in - on a scientific basis and educate yourself - 'cause, you know, he did die feet away from his house, and he wasn't doing anything wrong. And I don't know that, you know, speaking well to Mr. Zimmerman would have been seen - taken as a sign of respect or as an uppity - I'll just use a classic word - Negro, you know; taught, you're giving me sass. I'm not so certain that Mr. Zimmerman could have heard that even if he used the correct strategies.

CONAN: Well, again, we don't know precisely what happened but Mark, I hear you. Thank you very much for the call. And Leonard Pitts, thanks so much for your time today. Appreciate it.

PITTS: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Leonard Pitts Jr. is a syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald. You're listening TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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