Trayvon Martin Story Sparks Difficult Conversations
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. A month ago yesterday, a neighborhood watch volunteer shot and killed an unarmed, African-American teenager in Sanford, Florida, and conversations began. Many focused on race - conversations about the police decision to let the shooter walk away free; about why a young, black man in a hoodie was immediately seen as a threat; about fears that a town with a history of racial injustice might just bury this investigation under cover of a controversial self-defense law.
Marches and protests and vigils across the country painted Trayvon Martin as another martyr on a long list of martyrs. Some hear reports - in the past day or so - of his troubles in high school as an effort to smear the victim. Some hear reports that he confronted, and beat, his shooter as evidence that this wasn't about race at all.
We still don't know what happened, but the conversation needs to continue. How has this story changed your conversations among your neighbors, co-workers, your friends and family? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. And we have a special assignment for our emailers today, to participate in Michele Norris' Race Card Project. Describe how the talk on race has changed, in six words. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website, at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And we're going to hear from members of the audience gathered here in Studio 4A. We begin with Hassan Adeeb. He teaches world history, African history and African-American history at Westlake High School in Waldorf, Maryland, and joins us by phone from the school. Nice to have you with us today.
HASSAN ADEEB: Hi, how are you?
CONAN: I'm well, thank you. What's the conversation like amongst the students there at your school?
ADEEB: I would say students are extremely curious about the Trayvon Martin case. Yesterday, many of them basically engaged in silent solidarity by wearing hoodies. Monday, I believe - yesterday was supposed to be a day where people were to wear hoodies to work.
I didn't wear a hoodie; I never wear a hoodie except when I'm out jogging, maybe. But the students made sure that I noticed that they were wearing hoodies to school on yesterday.
But they are, I would say, asking their teachers to talk about the Trayvon Martin case. And some of the teachers feel comfortable about doing that. Some are not as comfortable about, you know, basically dealing in a real, contemporary, controversial issue.
But the students all relate this to - or many of them relate it to Emmett Till. They, you know, usually are taught Emmett Till. I know we have two or three Emmett Till videos in our school library. So the teachers have made use of that. So the students have some historic knowledge of the Emmett Till case, and wonder if this Trayvon Martin case bears any similarity to the Emmett Till murder.
CONAN: That's entering the realm of legend.
ADEEB: It absolutely does enter in the realm of legend. But, you know, most of the young people, especially the young males - Westlake High School is mostly African-American, and they feel that they are very similar to Trayvon Martin in the sense that they also have been the subject of racial profiling; or maybe just profiled because they're teenagers or because they're large, you know, you know, men - you know, large young men. And - because even the white students feel that sometimes they are profiled, merely because they're teenagers.
CONAN: Do they relate this to their own experiences, being followed in convenience stores, that sort of thing?
ADEEB: Absolutely. There's large shopping malls in Waldorf and the students, there were times when - you know, I remember in the past, it was very difficult for African-American students to get a job. You know, teenagers, especially high school teenagers, they all desire to get employment. And that's one of the issues they say is - maybe they're not getting the job because of their race.
CONAN: And how do they respond to a case where the parallels are being drawn to Emmett Till, that's happening in their - not merely their lifetimes, but to one of their contemporaries?
ADEEB: Right, exactly. And that's how the issue is - let me phrase it this way: Emmett Till, this year I have not taught yet. I have about - probably a few weeks before I teach the Emmett Till case. So to get a real understanding of how they are relating it to Emmett Till, I can't say right now.
But one of the things I think that does - that has happened are, teachers have come to me, since I teach African-American history. They've come to me, asked me what they can do to basically, you know, do a lesson on Trayvon Martin. What I did over the weekend, I created a blog post that had resources, that I sent out to some of my peers; and then sent it out more broadly.
And people have been telling me - yesterday, we had a meeting within my department - how that was very helpful to them - because the students want to know. And I think the issue, especially as educators, is to provide them with systems for understanding issues like this, so it's not all emotion.
Once they - I was surprised, at first, how few of the students knew about the Trayvon Martin case when I introduced the lesson last Thursday. Once - I did it, as any educator would know, a KWL activity: What do you know already? What did you learn from what I showed - them?
I presented a clip from the Ed Schultz show, from MSNBC; and then a list of facts from another media source, a printed list of facts about the case. And once they learned - once they learned that information, I'll say, then the issue is what do you want to know more.
And then tried to relate it to broader issues like due process of law, government transparency - you know, things like that; rule of law, etc. And that - then they begin to see how something that is contemporary in their life has some - how the curriculum has some relevance to something contemporary in their life.
So that, as an educator, you know, it's very helpful. I mean, it's terrible that a tragedy like this has to occur sometimes in order for, you know, to get greater interest in the curriculum. But the thing is, is that the students are curious. We need to keep them aware.
They came in the next day giving me information that I didn't know, right, and that's always good.
CONAN: Well, maybe not at first - but unusual, in any case. Thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate you taking time away from your job there.
ADEEB: Thank you.
CONAN: Hassan Adeeb teachers history at Westlake High School in Waldorf, Maryland. He joined us by phone from there. We're going to be hearing from a number of different guests, as we mentioned; 800-989-8255. Tell us how the conversation has changed amongst your friends and families, your neighbors, your co-workers. We're also going to hear from audience members here in Studio 4A.
CONAN: Why don't we begin now with Inez(ph). Inez, could you come up to the microphone? There's a group of about - oh, I guess about 70 people or so here in Studio 4A, and a young woman named Inez is coming to the microphone. Thanks very much, and tell us how the conversation has changed.
INEZ: Well, actually, I work at the Latin-American Youth Center, and we actually have had some discussions with students about the conversation. And I think the thing that I've noticed the most is that students tend to be very interested. I've had students ask me different questions.
I have family members who are 18 and 20 as well, and so we've had a discussion within my family. And I just think - in particular, I ask the student, and I asked my cousin this as well: Did they feel that when they are - do they basically feel that they are harassed, a lot of the time, by the police, and things like that?
And my cousin, who was actually 20, we had an in-depth conversation about that. And then he said that he felt, sometimes, that people assume the worst about him. And he's a college student and working, a very bright young man. And again, when he walks down the street, he wears hoodies, he wears sneakers, and we had a conversation.
And I just really wanted to know what that felt like. And I also asked him: How do you think we deal with that problem?
CONAN: That's one generation of your family. What about another one?
INEZ: Well, we - my - I will say that I often have conversations, a lot, with my mother. And my mom, although we have young men in my family, sometimes she occasionally will - she'll hear certain language and things like that, and assume things about people. And I think when actually - she was really, really saddened by this particular case. And I think, you know - not I think; we've had conversations.
And I told her that it's very dangerous to think like that, one, as an African-American woman, obviously, to think that about young African-Americans. But just in general that...
CONAN: When you say assume things about young people, assume the worst.
INEZ: She would assume - I mean, if she walked past, let's say, a group of people and heard certain types of conversation, she would assume the worst. And I think that that is part of the problem; that you cannot look at a person, obviously, and look at the way they're dressed - or even necessarily hear the way they talk - and assume the worst.
That's what led to this case in the first place. And I think for her, the light bulb moment finally came on - because we've had conversations like that in the past. But I think it took this case for that light bulb to really come on.
CONAN: Thanks very much for that, appreciate it.
INEZ: Thank you.
CONAN: The way - another way the conversation has been proceeding has been the Race Card Project. Our colleague Michele Norris, for the past year or so, has been - literally - handing out race cards; asking people in audiences that she addresses, and on the Web, to crystallize their thoughts on race in six words. It's taken on a new life. Michele Norris is with us here in Studio 4A.
It's taken on a new life in the past couple of weeks.
MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: Yeah, and in part because we've been talking about it here on your program, Neal. And I'm watching the emails, and they're just flooding in. And some of them are so interesting. Paul Weiner(ph) says: We all hold our tongues too much. Rain Madison(ph), her six words were: I was taught fear of others.
Kent Willman(ph) says: Race doesn't matter; yes, it does. Six words from Florida, from Tyler Vyher(ph). He says: Skittles or gun, I can't tell.
CONAN: Hmm. That, referring to what Trayvon Williams(ph)...
NORRIS: Trayvon Martin was carrying with him, yes.
CONAN: Trayvon Martin was carrying, yes.
NORRIS: Someone else wrote about Zimmerman. Lisa Wideman(ph) said: Zimmerman - and she actually wrote a longer note, but reduced it to these six words, Neal, that she says keep running to her head. She says: Neal, these six words keep running through my head: Zimmerman was looking for an excuse.
And then in parentheses, she said: To kill a black guy, that is.
CONAN: Hmm. Sometimes the imperative to say it in six words...
NORRIS: Yeah, yeah, people find ways around that.
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NORRIS: Michael Adams(ph) - and they usually put it in parentheses when they do it...
CONAN: Of course, yeah, explaining it, yes.
NORRIS: Michael Adams says: People think it's over; it's not. Lindsey Lovell(ph), who wrote from Columbus, Ohio, who is someone actually I just met when I was in Columbus, she wrote in: I feel guilt for my ancestors. And John Nigel(ph) sent in six words, but noted something that many people say: We still have more work to do.
CONAN: Michele Norris, we'll hear more from her - and more from the Race Card Project - a little bit later in the broadcast. We're talking about conversations we're all having about race, and how those conversations may have changed since the Trayvon Martin shooting.
Call and tell us: How has this story changed your conversations amongst your neighbors, your co-workers, your friends and family; 800-989-8255. And emailers, if you'd like to participate in the Race Card Project, send us your thoughts in six words, email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. A grand jury is set to convene two weeks from today in the Trayvon Martin case. They'll consider whether or not to bring state charges against the shooter, the self-appointed neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman.
Florida's governor appointed a special prosecutor in the case. The Department of Justice opened its own investigation, and Trayvon Martin's parents are expected here in Washington today, at a congressional forum on racial profiling and hate crimes, though they're not expected to testify themselves.
How has this story changed your conversations amongst your neighbors, your co-workers, your friends and family; 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. And we have a special assignment for emailers today: Participate in Michele Norris' Race Card Project. Describe how the talk on race has changed, in six words. Again, that email address is email@example.com. You're also encouraged to join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
We're going to hear more from members of our audience gathered here in Studio 4A. In the meantime, let's get to a caller, and we'll go to - this is Fred(ph), Fred with us from Kalamazoo.
FRED: Yes, I'm here.
CONAN: Go ahead, Fred. How has the conversation changed?
FRED: Well, the conversation among the friends that I've talked to, and co-workers, has been to the point that nothing is going to change until we change as a nation. Not just - just opening up dialogue is not change. What we need to do is to change, spiritually, among the people. We must find a way that we can get everybody to work together.
CONAN: And how are people going to do that? That sounds like something we've been talking about, on and off, for quite a long time.
FRED: Well, one of the things is - is first of all, it's each individual neighborhood is going to have to look at, what can do in our neighborhood to change the mood of the people; change how people think about each other. And the best way we can do that is come together as a people and talk about it; but not only just talk about it, but show some action. We need action right now.
We don't need just talk. We've been - this dialogue has been going on for years, and as long as it's in the dialogue stage, we will never get anything done. It is time to put some of this stuff into action.
CONAN: And when you talk to people, do you find them thoughtful? Do you find them angry? Do you find them reflective? Do you find them sad?
FRED: Well, I kind of find - it's kind of a mixed bag. Some people are sad about it. Some people are to the point that they just don't care anymore because nothing has ever changed. And some people are angry, and some people just don't have any comment at all. But it's just kind of a mixed bag of what people think and what - and the ideas that they have.
So that means if they do have ideas, we should be able to come together and start putting these ideas that everybody has together, and see what we can work out.
CONAN: Fred, thanks very much for the call; appreciate it. One of the issues under discussion, that people have been talking about, is Florida's Stand Your Ground law. It's a self-defense variant whereupon people in the public square, if they are threatened, are allowed to respond to force with force under the law; are not required to try to retreat first and de-escalate the confrontation.
The law that started in Florida has spread to about two dozen other states. It's currently under consideration in the state of Iowa. Joining us now from a studio in Cedar Rapids is Sheriff Brian Gardner, the sheriff of Linn County in Iowa. Nice to have you with us today.
SHERIFF BRIAN GARDNER: Thanks for having me, Neal.
CONAN: And I've read a statement from the sheriff's association there, that says they believe this law to be unnecessary.
GARDNER: That's correct. Iowa law currently provides that a citizen has the right to defend themselves, including the use of deadly force, when in their homes or their place of business. What the proposed legislation would do is actually extend that anywhere that they're lawfully allowed to be - so that they have no duty to retreat, no duty to disengage or try to de-escalate. And we have a problem with that.
CONAN: And how has that conversation changed in the past month?
GARDNER: Well, certainly, although tragic as it may be, the situation down in Florida does illustrate our point as to what can go wrong with that legislation.
CONAN: And the problem being, it's difficult enough for trained police officers and sheriff's deputies to figure out what's going on in a highly emotional situation where firearms or other weapons or threats are involved; even more difficult for citizens to figure it out.
GARDNER: Absolutely. And especially when the proposed legislation allows that you have no duty to even consider the retreat. You know, you can keep the use of force or escalate it. That's the concern that we have.
CONAN: There are those, though - and yesterday, we talked with Rep. Baxley of Florida, the prime sponsor of the legislation down there, who said wait a minute, if you've got this right to defend yourself, to stand your ground in your home, why do you have fewer rights in a park or on the sidewalk?
GARDNER: Well, the problem is, it's maybe more difficult for you to try to retreat from your home. If you have a person come into your residence, where are you going to retreat to? The same thing may be true for your place of business. But if you're out in public, you certainly have ample opportunities to disengage or retreat - leave the scene, turn around, walk away, do whatever you have to do.
Now, understand that certainly if you're facing lethal force or a lethal-force situation right away, then that would be a different situation. But from what I understand in the situation down in Florida, it sounds like the person that actually shot Mr. Martin kind of escalated the force. And when he was told by law-enforcement authorities - you know - thank you for calling in the suspicious person; we'll handle it from here, he chose to escalate and actually be confrontational with this person. And I don't know that it's necessary.
CONAN: And have there been cases in Iowa, where those who are arguing for the law say wait a minute, in this case, this certainly would have resolved the situation, would've made things better?
GARDNER: We can think of no situation that has occurred, that would have been useful for this bill. Iowans have always had the ability to defend themselves. All they have to do is go through the cognitive process of ensuring that the force is necessary based on the information that they know, given to them at that time.
CONAN: We had an email from Sun Lilly(ph), who wrote: I recognize the importance of having a national conversation about race after an incident like this. I feel we're missing the opportunity to also have a discussion about guns.
Gun laws in Iowa - are they being thought through? Is there a new context for that discussion?
GARDNER: There is a new context for that discussion. January of 2011, we switched over to what they refer to as a shall-issue state, which means that if an applicant did not meet a state or federal prohibitor, they would be required that the sheriff issue them a permit to carry weapons.
CONAN: So that - do the sheriffs, do you think that increases the risks of accidents?
GARDNER: Well, it certainly puts, in our view - and mine, specifically - it does have the ability to put weapons into hands of people who should not possess them. There are so few prohibitors. Prior to the change of this law, it was up to the discretion of each of Iowa's 99 sheriffs - as to determine whether or not a person should possess a handgun and be issued a permit. And that was based on the sheriff's personal knowledge of the situation.
And now, the law is pretty specific: If it does not meet a prohibitor in either state or the federal laws, then we must give that permit. I think we - most of us have always thought that to be able to possess a weapon, you should be a law-abiding citizen. And we're now providing weapons to people who have fairly extensive criminal records.
CONAN: Thanks very much, Sheriff; we appreciate your time.
GARDNER: You're very welcome. Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Sheriff Brian Gardner, the sheriff of Linn County in Iowa, with us from a studio in Cedar Rapids. Let's go next to somebody else here in the audience, in Studio 4A. Susan Olsen(ph), can you come to the microphone, please? Thanks very much; how has the conversation changed?
SUSAN OLSEN: Well, it hasn't changed - you know - all that much, really. My father's an elderly man, and I think everybody's families have changed remarkably, you know, in terms of how they view race in recent years - or in, you know, in the past 20, 40 years, whatever. And certainly, that's been true of my family.
But still, even though those opinions have changed over the years, I have to admit that I was still disappointed when my elderly father - you know, the first thing he said to me about it - we were talking this morning, and he said, oh - you know - I heard he had a bag of marijuana, and he was suspended from school.
And I was just so - you know, I was just so surprised. And I'm thinking, you know, it was an empty bag - as I understood it - and it was...
CONAN: Traces, yeah.
OLSEN: Right, the young victim's. And he was suspended for 10 days from school. And all I could say was, isn't this a symptom of a larger problem? I mean, you know, and I just said, this probably could be any of your grandchildren, too, you know, and would you jump on - you know, is that a reason for a young man to get shot - over this?
And it made my - you know, it made my father stop and think and, you know...
CONAN: And stop and think - do you think the conversation is over? Is it going to continue?
OLSEN: Oh, no, these - I think that's the great thing in recent years. I mean, you know, even before the election of Barack Obama, I think families are having these conversations all the time now, where we didn't used to.
CONAN: All right, thanks very much, we appreciate it. Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go next to - this is Jerry(ph), Jerry with us from Cookeville in Tennessee.
JERRY: Hi, Neal.
CONAN: Hi, Jerry, go ahead, please.
JERRY: Well, first off, I'd like to say to all the young people out there, you know, you - life's rough, and you're going to have some good times and some bad times. The good times, hopefully, will be more prevalent. And when I was younger - I mean, I'm talking like, over 40 years ago - I kind of ran around with the hippie crowd where I lived in Southern California. And if the cops saw you in a certain park, the way we dressed, we were always hassled, you know? And if some people have pot, you know, they'd take off running, and you'd outrun the cops. But I mean, that stuff happens.
But the deal that happened with this young man, it was a tragic thing. And I just find it really deplorable how people are politicizing this, this young man's death. I mean, the Obama White House - now, they're having the re-election campaign. They're having Obama hoodies they're selling on their website. I mean, that's pretty bad, doing that. I mean, that's deplorable. We've got groups like the New Black Panther Party calling for a bounty on this man's head when all the evidence isn't in yet.
If this man is guilty, then he should go to prison for a long time. Or if it's premeditated murder, they have the death penalty there, and that's what he should get. But we should wait till all the evidence is in before this country just explodes. It's - I feel the tensions. I hear it. I'm also going to be 60 in a few years - I've never seen nothing like this in my adult life. People, we need to slow down and remember, we're all Americans here. We all want the best for everybody. And we can't just let this thing tear us apart.
CONAN: You talked a little bit about your personal history. And can you understand the anger of people who felt that this might be completely swept under the rug yet again; after generations of such history, another such case?
JERRY: Well, they say swept under the rug. But we don't know what the evidence is, the evidence that - that this young man was pounding this guy's head in the sidewalk. And you can hear the guy screaming every time you can hear - like, you know, like, you can hear like, somebody was getting hit, and you're - somebody screamed. And then we heard the gunshot. So, like I said, we have to weigh the evidence and - to try to...
CONAN: I hear what you're saying, Jerry. We also don't know when the gun was pulled, and what was in response to what. There are a lot of details we don't know here. We don't want to jump to conclusions; you're absolutely right. But I think we have to be careful about what motives we're ascribing to what people, and what circumstances when, as you say, we really don't know what happened.
JERRY: And we can't try to compare this to Emmett Till. I mean, what happened to that poor young man - well, that happened, I think, about a year after I was born. So I was just a - I mean, I was a baby when that happened. But what happened to that young man, I mean, he can't be compared to this. I mean - and that is really reaching low to try to do that. It kind of savages the memory of Emmett Till, doing this.
CONAN: Jerry, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. We're talking about how the conversation on race has changed as the result of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go again to our colleague Michele Norris, who's been collecting six-word crystallizations of thoughts on race as part of her Race Cards Project. She's with us here in Studio 4A. What are some of the ones coming in?
NORRIS: Neal, I'm trying to keep up with them as they come in. Jerry just said that we ought not compare this to Emmett Till. But a lot have come in mentioning Emmett Till. A lot have also come in mentioning Rodney King. One woman - actually, several other people have written in. Josh Renault(ph), Marie Thomas(ph) wrote in the words that we remember Rodney King uttering after Los Angeles erupted in flames: Can't we all just get along? Someone else noted that this case is: the Rodney King of our time. That was Tula(ph).
Christine Ashmore(ph) had five words: Zimmerman adopts country's cultural bias. Craig said: Conditioned fear of difference beyond color. Karen Bedsworth(ph) said: Hoodie isn't a synonym for hoodlum. Stephanie Pools-Hopkins(ph) sent these six words in: That was somebody's baby. That was actually only five words. And Jeff Toey(ph) said: I am scared for my son. Nina Bren(ph) - you know, sometimes people express different kinds of emotions. Sometimes it's fear. Sometimes it's anger. Sometimes, you don't know if they meant humor or not. Nina Bren sent in two, six-word essays.
The first was: Black language full of hate: sad. The second was: White men can't jump is racist. Greg Victor(ph) said: Profiling is a euphemism for assuming.
Several of them have come in - if I can just try to crystallize and not, you know, just tick through all of them, but try to find the themes in here. A lot of people are talking about the specifics of the case: Running away is not standing your ground. A lot of people are talking about their own experiences.
A lot of people are still talking about something we talked about last week, Neal - the talk, how they talk about this with their own children. You see that in, I fear for my son. You see that in several of these coming in, saying they're trying to figure out what to tell their children. A few people have noted: The children are listening; be careful. The children are watching all of us. So it's, you know, different - you catch a lot of different things in this basket as these all come in.
CONAN: And it's interesting - folks who tuned in to hear our program with you last week will have already heard this - but the idea of crystallizing your thoughts in just six words, it seems to have an effect. It concentrates the mind.
NORRIS: It puts a sharp point on this. And one of the things that's interesting as you go through the six words that are pouring in to the inbox here at TALK OF THE NATION, these are sort of snap-judgment thoughts. Or I don't want to say judgments, but they're snap assessments of what people feel. Many times, they're just learning about the six-word project for the first time. And so it really is the first thing that comes to their mind, sort of the top-of-mind thought as they distill their thoughts about race.
And so that's one of the things that's wonderful about this, is that you get a real window from a lot of different places, and you realize that the country really is focused on this issue - not just, you know, what happened there in Sanford, but how it touches people personally, how it makes them think about race, how it makes them think about how people see their children, what they think. A lot of people have noted - fear is a common word here, the fear that they have when they go outside, if they happen to wear a hoodie; or also the fear that they admit to when they see a person of color.
And that's extraordinary, that people are actually talking about that, something that they maybe would admit only to the people who are closest in their lives. I see someone who doesn't look like me, and I clutch my purse. Someone steps in the elevator; I'm a little bit afraid of that. Both of those experiences have been referenced in six-word, you know, notations that have come in here. And you talking about how the conversation about race has changed. I have a feeling that if we did this two weeks ago, we might not have heard that.
CONAN: I suspect you may be right. We're talking about the Trayvon Martin case and how it's changed the conversation about race. Up next, we'll focus on the media. What's the conversation like in the newsroom? Obviously, we all rely on the media for accounts of this story, and all the other stories that we focus on. NPR's vice president for diversity will join us. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: Right now, we're talking about the case of Trayvon Martin and how it's changed the conversations we're all having about race. Some of those discussions happen in private. Others become very public. Yesterday, a police officer in New Orleans was suspended without pay after posting a comment on the website of WWLTV under a news story about the Trayvon Martin case. The officer wrote, quote: Act like a thug, die like one - a comment the superintendent of police called insensitive, harmful and offensive. He said: Those comments have given me grave concern regarding his fitness for duty.
We'll talk more about the media aspects of this story in just a moment. And by the way, to clarify a remark one of our callers made a few minutes ago, about hoodies being sold by the Obama campaign: Those sweatshirts were on sale long before the Trayvon Martin shooting, and before the case became known publicly.
Call and tell us, how has Trayvon Martin story changed your conversations amongst your neighbors, co-workers, your friends and family; 800-989-8255.And we're asking you to email as well, and take part in Michele Norris' Race Card Project - describe how the talk on race has changed, in six words. The email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll also hear from more members of our audience here in Studio 4A. Joining us is Keith Woods, who's NPR's vice president for diversity in News. He's with us here in Studio 4A. Nice of you to be with us today.
KEITH WOODS, BYLINE: Glad to be here.
CONAN: And one of the things you specialize in is talking to reporters and editors and producers when one of these stories comes up and sadly, they come up too often - about race, and how this conversation changes in the newsroom.
WOODS: Well, you know, the conversation is always changing, most often around the details of a particular story. In this case, I think that people are trying to figure out, first of all, how you get to talking about Emmett Till, for example, so fast after a story like this happens. They're trying to figure out how to manage what I think is a pretty complicated racial, ethnic dynamic when you're talking about George Zimmerman - whose race and ethnicity is, at least for some people, unknown or not understood.
He's a, you know, he's a white man. Is he the son of a Peruvian mother? Does that make him a Latino? What does that have to do, in the end, with the racial angle on this story? And journalists are trying to figure that out as they go through the reporting.
You know, I was struck by a couple of things as we began reporting on this. One of them is what I'm drawn to myself, as a black man who has raised black sons, and who knows the narrative that sits underneath that - having been stopped by police for reasons that, that only the police would understand, but I assume it has to do with bigotry.
When you're a reporter and you're trying to report on a story like that, and you bring any context - either the understanding and the history that I might bring to it, or none of that - it will affect how you report on the story. And I think a lot of the conversation today among journalists is either about that, or is about their reaction - the reaction that they're getting from the public to the stories that they're doing that may, in fact, be guided by our personal histories as journalists.
CONAN: There are also elements of this story that - for example, the leak of information about Trayvon Martin. This from his school, apparently, or from the police, apparently, but in any case, an unauthorized leak that he was having problems in school, including having been suspended for that trace amount of marijuana found in a plastic bag in his backpack. His mother says that is an attempt to smear her son's reputation. And this is an unauthorized leak.
Yes, of course, she's right; it's unauthorized. It should not have become public. But at this point, is it realistic for anybody in the story - George Zimmerman or Trayvon Martin's family - to expect that everything they have ever done will not become public?
WOODS: Well, that's the nature of reporting. And let's put it in its legitimate place, that what we're trying to do journalistically is help people to understand the characters in this story, understand how we got here. There is an essential question here – a central question here that is a legal question, that has to do with what happened that night and whether, in fact, George Zimmerman shot a young man in self-defense, or whether he shot him because of his own provocation.
But the fact of the matter is that the journalists need to know these things about both of these characters in this story. The trouble, if you're a journalist, is trying to figure out how to tell that truth - because you have to tell it as you learn it without appearing, as it does in Trayvon Martin's mother's case, to be character assassination, especially when race is the thing that charges the story as it does.
CONAN: Here's an email we have from Dan in Orem, Utah: My first reaction on hearing the shooting was that of outrage at a self-appointed vigilante for his lethal exercise of supposed rights to stand his ground while invoking self-defense, and advancing on the youth against the dispatcher's advice. Since then, additional facts and questions have emerged. I now realize I've been part of a massive, near-nationwide rush to judgment. I, and many others, need to step back and let the investigations proceed. We need to follow the wisdom of those who listen and watch with care, and defer premature judgment.
Again, we've been careful to try to say all along, we don't know what happened there. We still don't know what happened there. Some more details are coming out. Again, the sequence of events - what happened when, exactly; who did what to who - we still don't know. But these are all elements, at this point, of a narrative that are competing narratives, and that this is going to be polarized.
WOODS: And it will be, and there's not a whole lot that you can you do journalistically, to avoid that. What you can do is understand what people need right now. We need to know the context that causes people to reach the conclusions - either the ones that conclude that Trayvon Martin brought this on himself, or the ones that caused people to believe that this is yet another case of an injustice that's being swept under the rug. That's about context, that's about understanding the story behind it. And journalistically, we can do that without taking a side on this.
CONAN: Yet, the pressure of time - those demanding justice now and the authorities saying, wait a minute; these things take time.
WOODS: Yeah. Well, what we can do is provide people with some sense of how much time these things tend to take. Whether what's happening in Sanford is normal, we can report that. We can figure those things out. We can provide people with the information that allows them to make better decisions about this. In the end, you can't control the decisions that people make, though.
CONAN: Let's bring another member of the audience up to the microphone. Oh, Rebecca, could you join us at the microphone, please? Thanks very much. How has the conversation changed?
REBECCA: I think the conversation has changed - well, I'm not sure if it's changed, actually. I've been listening to friends of mine, friends who are closer to my age, who said they felt like they're back in time; like they're back in the '50s or the '60s. And so it just got me thinking, kind of agreeing with what the previous guest said; that, I'm not sure if the conversation has really changed, or if people are just reverting back to the previous conversation.
CONAN: So that the conversation hasn't changed; it's just an old conversation with new details?
REBECCA: Exactly. And for me - it's troubling for me because, as a student of mine actually just said, race to him should not be an issue; like race is, in a sense, fabricated and - race, in a sense, is fabricated, and that the issue really isn't race. It's about this deeper issue. The truth of the matter is missing; you know, what provoked this man to commit this crime?
Prejudice, and the fear that comes with that, of the unknown; greed; the need for power - because in truth, there are Trayvon Martins all over the world. There are young people who are being killed, older people who are being killed unjustly, for whatever the reason may be. And I think that's something that we need to pay attention to, that - what is race, and how does this conversation of race perpetuate people to commit these crimes?
CONAN: Had the conversation changed with the election of an African-American president? And does this feel like something that is - something different?
REBECCA: Amongst my group of friends, I don't think the conversation of race had necessarily changed because everyday experiences kind of override the fact that we have a black president - or an African-American president.
CONAN: So the context hasn't changed?
REBECCA: Yeah, I think, regardless of the fact that we have an African-American president. I think it was very symbolic that we've gotten to this point but, you know, I work with what you may considered - consider a disadvantage youth and...
CONAN: Here in Washington, D.C.?
REBECCA: Yes, and previously in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And it didn't really change their everyday lives, you know? They were still followed in the stores. There were still, you know, stereotyped. I had a friend who was dragged from his house because they thought he looked like another perpetrator. And President Barack Obama was in office, you know. I'm - I'm - and that's what makes me think that, what is race? You know, what is the root of the problem? What is the truth about the matter? What is this fear that exists in people to commit these crimes; to have no regard for a human life, whether it's based on their color - of their skin, whether they want to overtake their land, or whatever it is, you know. Because like I said, the fact of the matter is, there are a lot of Trayvon Martins around the world right now, with no one to rally behind them.
CONAN: No one to speak for them. Rebecca, thank you very much for coming to the microphone. We're here in Studio 4A today, talking about the case of Trayvon Martin and how it's changed the conversation or, as Rebecca suggests, may not have. You're listening TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And let's turn again to our colleague Michele Norris, who's been taking in your six-word essays on race cards this past hour. Any new entries?
NORRIS: Oh, I'll just try to tick through a few of them. This is from Meredith Ward(ph) in Massachusetts: I love you, son. Be careful. Those were her six words. Tammy Paul(ph) in Ten(ph), Wisconsin - I've never heard of Ten, Wisconsin - she said: Assumptions aren't always true or false. Frank Davie(ph) says: Black prisoner population reflects black behavior. John wonders: Hispanic community is silent; wonder why. Jim Walmendorf(ph) said: Trapped between many walls of fear - and said: We are all hurt by this. Randall McMurphy(ph) said: Weren't - we weren't there - weren't there, didn't witness, shut up. One woman - she's anonymous - she said: Robbed once more, another black boy.
We have had about 10 that have come in, that reference a particular song from the movie and the Broadway show "South Pacific," "You've Got to be Carefully Taught."
CONAN: Have you gotten any six-word essays from members of the audience here?
NORRIS: We have. We have. There's one from Susan Olson(ph), and we heard from Susan: Fear equal lack of education, experiences. Someone else, Andrew Maddox(ph), said: White mentality but how, why matters more; to race is only human. And then Everett(ph) added to that: It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. Inez(ph) says: Finally, the nation talks about race. And Dayvon Ford(ph) says: Race doesn't define me, no - and then there are several exclamation points behind that.
CONAN: Dayvon, would you mind coming to the mic and telling us what you meant by them? A man from the margins of the audience is coming up, so it's taking a few minutes extra to get to the microphone. Explain.
DAYVON: Well, what I meant by race doesn't define me is that I'm an African-American child, and whatever I decide to put on, or wear, is my business. It doesn't define who I am, or how I act, or what I do outside of my birthplace or school.
CONAN: Are you - go ahead, Michele. Yeah.
NORRIS: Do you mind if I ask a question? I'm just struck because you have a gray sweatshirt on...
DAYVON: That's correct.
NORRIS: ...but it doesn't have a hood on it today.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
NORRIS: And I'm wondering, when you decided - when you reached into your closet today, were you thinking about that?
DAYVON: Nope. I just decided to put it on.
CONAN: And were you also writing about the assumptions that somebody may have made about a young boy about your age...
CONAN: ,...who was dressed in a hoodie - happened to be dressed in a hoodie, that they did not see a young African-American man; they saw somebody who they thought of as a threat.
CONAN: Have you had that experience?
CONAN: Well, thanks very much for talking with us. We appreciate it.
DAYVON: You're welcome.
CONAN: Michele, any more on the way out?
NORRIS: Yeah. There's one - you know, I'm struck by how many people put this into context of history. We've heard about Rodney King and Emmett Till. Robin(ph) said: Most presumed guilt since Sacco and Vanzetti.
CONAN: These were the bank robbers...
CONAN: ...alleged bank robbers; the anarchists back in Braintree, Massachusetts, in the 1920s. Yeah.
NORRIS: Mm-hmm. And Tahara(ph) echoes what Rebecca said: It hasn't changed, just blown up. A number of people have also referenced the Duke lacrosse case, a case where an African-American woman accused a number of Duke lacrosse players of engaging in a sexual result, and Alicia Frank(ph) writes: Duke lacrosse case, please be careful. Matthew Stanley writes: We're all a little bit racists - and he says: All credit due to "Avenue Q." That is a Broadway show, and there was a song called "We're All a Little Bit Racist." So there's a musical cue there, also. And Anhn - I think I may have read this before, but I guess it's worth repeating - Ann Rider(ph) writes: We are all hurt by this. And Mark Meek says - and as I read this, it reminds me of Dayvon; he says: Always having to prove myself, always.
CONAN: Michele Norris, thanks very much. If people would like to contribute to the Race Card Project, go to...
NORRIS: The racecardproject.com.
CONAN: Thank you very much.
NORRIS: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Our colleague Michele Norris, with us here...
NORRIS: Always good to be with you.
CONAN: ...in Studio 4A. Our thanks as well to Keith Woods, vice president for diversity in News and Operations, here at NPR. Keith, thanks very much.
WOODS: You're welcome.
CONAN: We'd always like to thank all of you who joined us here in the studio audience today, and to all of you who emailed and called us with your stories. I'm sad we did not have an opportunity to get to you all. And thanks to everybody for listening. Tomorrow, our Wednesday visit with Political Junkie Ken Rudin. On Thursday, we'll wrap up this week's arguments before the Supreme Court on health care, so join us for that.
This is the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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