Are African-American Men 'Invisible?'

President Obama recently called on the nation to rally around young African-American men. But is that easier said than done? Host Michel Martin asks a panel of dads.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.

Today, we want to talk about something we know many Americans are still working through - the verdict in the George Zimmerman case. George Zimmerman, of course, was acquitted of all charges connected to his fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, who was an unarmed teenager who was visiting his neighborhood. On Friday, President Obama talked about where he hopes the national conversation will go next.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENT OBAMA)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys. And this is something Michelle and I talk a lot about. There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And is there more that we can do to give them a sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?

MARTIN: We thought this was as good a place as any to focus this conversation today so we have gathered three men, three African-American men - all distinguished, all fathers - who've been writing about and thinking about these kinds of issues for a very long time. Eugene Robinson is back with us.

He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning opinion writer for the Washington Post and a father of two. Leonard Pitts is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Miami Herald and a father of five. Gregory Ellison II is assistant professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Emory University in Atlanta. He's also the author of "Cut Dead But Still Alive: Caring for African-American Young Men." He's also a father of three. Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.

LEONARD PITTS: Thank you for having me.

EUGENE ROBINSON: Good to be here, Michel.

GREGORY ELLISON II: It's good to be here.

MARTIN: Eugene Robinson, even before the president made his remarks, you wrote a column that got a lot of attention. You wrote a piece saying that black boys are denied the right to be young. You write quote, our society considers young black men to be dangerous, interchangeable, expendable, guilty until proven innocent. What sparked that piece? And you know I want to know what reaction you got to it.

ROBINSON: Well, I got a huge reaction to it on both sides. You know, what sparked it - it's something I've been thinking about for a while, but certainly the Trayvon Martin case brought it up. And actually, Leonard and I were talking earlier - the photograph, you know, the photograph that's supposed to be of Trayvon Martin, it's really of the rapper the Game - and it's an adult man with, you know, with tattoos and everything. It looks nothing like Trayvon Martin. Yet, there are many, many, many people out there...

MARTIN: ...Who still think it's him.

ROBINSON: ...Who think it's him, who write to me and write to Leonard and other columnists and say, you know, this is the real Trayvon Martin. And that's what much of America thinks the real Trayvon Martin is, because he's a young black man. I mean, that's what they see when they see a young black man, they see menace, they see danger, they see a threat to them.

MARTIN: Leonard Pitts, what did you think of the president's remarks? Obviously, talking about young black men wasn't the only thing he talked about - or boys, really wasn't the only thing he talked about, but what did you think of it?

PITTS: What I liked about what the president did was that he particularized Trayvon Martin - as Eugene just pointed out, there's been a tendency in this country since this whole thing began to, sort of, make Trayvon this all-purpose, general-purpose young black thug. It amazes me how often I get emails from people who refer to him in pretty much those terms - this thug did this, this thug did that, this quote, unquote thug was walking in the rain with Skittles and iced tea.

It's hard to see how you go from that to this general-purpose thug, but people make that leap and I think that in tying Trayvon Martin to himself, i.e., the most powerful man in the world - and yet I had to go through this - in tying Trayvon Martin through that, I think the president did Trayvon, and frankly all of us, a service in reminding us that, you know, we are talking about individual peoples and individual precious lives.

MARTIN: Professor Ellison, what did you think of the president's remarks? And I also want to then go where the present went, which is to say, what now? You know, what should happen now? So, Professor Ellison?

ELLISON: Yeah, what Leonard was sharing, I think the president did a good job in humanizing Trayvon. Unfortunately, there are so many African-American young men who are muted and invisible, and not given the opportunity to be seen otherwise. They're perceived as threats, as Gene has already said, they're percieved as potential perpetrators. I had a student, an African-American male in my class, who said just a couple of days ago, that, you know, we really need to reckon with ourselves because many of us, black, white, and other, you know, view the lives of young black men through Zimmermanian eyes. We see them as potential perpetrators.

MARTIN: Why the title of your book "Cut Dead But Still Alive"? Talk little bit about what that means.

ELLISON: Cut dead is a 19th century term used by William James, which means to be snubbed completely or deliberately ignored. Unfortunately, there are so many African-American young men who feel invisible, who feel as if they are literally cut dead, but they're living. They're trying to attain a better future, but they're only given the opportunity to be seen in one way.

So the work that we're doing in our community is a grass-roots initiative called "Fearless Dialogues," where we bring together elected officials and nonprofits and teachers and parents and students and - as well as - you know, drug dealers. This past Saturday, we had a group of about 300 people here at Emory University to talk about how we might improve the lives of African-American young men.

MARTIN: Now I understand that this is the summer so classes are generally not in session for the most part, but I am interested, Professor Ellison, in the kinds of conversations you're hearing about from your students. And what kinds of conversations do they want people to be having in the wake of this?

ELLISON: Yeah, I think the thing that's beautiful in the midst of this heart-wrenching tragedy is that these conversations are not just happening in classrooms, but they're also happening in homes around dinner tables. I was privy to a conversation between two white, Midwestern men who had been wrestling with their issues with race and prejudice, and thinking about the fact that they don't have to worry that their sons will be targeted as suspicious men, and I think that's the beauty. I think we're in a zeitgeist moment here. Zeitgeist is a German term, which means it's the spirit of the age.

And I think we're coming to a time with the president's comments where we really must begin to think critically about how we perceive - not just African-American young men, but invisible persons all over our country, the folks who are tucked away in senior citizens' homes, the people that we overlook on park benches. So what we're trying to do is to heighten the vision, so that we might see those around us who are hidden in plain view.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are talking about the president's call to support young African-American men after the verdict in the George Zimmerman case. Our guests are Professor Gregory Ellison of Emory University, that's who was speaking just now. Also with us, Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald and Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, both Pulitzer Prize-winning columnists. Also, these are all fathers here, as well.

Gene Robinson, you - in addressing the question of what should happen now, you also wrote another piece saying, look, maybe it would be better if we all gathered at public libraries on some appointed day and worked our way through an agenda, legacy of slavery - check, Jim Crow segregation - check, affirmative-action - check. But then you were also saying, but that's never going to happen.

ROBINSON: It's not going to happen.

MARTIN: Since that's not going to happen...

ROBINSON: This national conversation about race that thoughtful people say we should have it - I've probably said we should have in the past - I think, I actually think this is the way we have our national conversation about race. Something happens, people get upset, we argue about it, it's a very scratchy thing. We fight and then it fades away and we kind of lose interest and it doesn't seem like we've gotten anywhere, but sometimes we have. We might not realize it for a while, but I think this is it, basically.

MARTIN: To do what, though? I mean, so to what end, though? I mean, one of the things that's coming out today is that polls demonstrate that African-Americans are very upset with the verdict, feel it was completely unfair, but whites, by a slight majority, think it was an appropriate verdict.

It's interesting that Hispanics who were polled tend to believe - not as strongly as African-Americans do - but tend to believe strongly that the criminal justice system is biased and that there was an unfair result. So given that there is a polarization of opinion here...

ROBINSON: Yeah. Well, at least now we know about the polarization of opinion and, also, there was an interesting thing in one of the polls saying that 4 out of 10 white people thought the justice system was biased against blacks, basically.

And so that's not the 86 percent of black people who think it's biased against blacks, but 4 out of 10 - that's kind of interesting. Four out of 10 white Americans think the justice system is biased, and I didn't know that. So we gained knowledge and it's an exchange of information. Sometimes we don't get anywhere but at least, you know, we've brought these things to the floor and we've talked about them.

MARTIN: Leonard Pitts, you wrote a fairly blunt column about this saying...

PITTS: Only fairly blunt?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I'll just let people decide for themselves. This is the lead: four words of advice for African-Americans in the wake of George Zimmerman's of acquittal - wake the hell up.

PITTS: Yeah.

ELLISON: Wow.

MARTIN: And?

ROBINSON: Tell us how you really feel.

MARTIN: And?

PITTS: Well, my point - I guess I'm kind of where Eugene is in terms of the conversation on race. And I'm one of those who has said that we need to have a conversation. I still think it would be a wonderful and healthy thing for this country to be able to do that outside of, you know, this circus atmosphere when we have these great tragedies or traumas that happen to us. But I think that over and beyond that, African-Americans need to get serious about organizing, they need to get serious about taking responsibility for the things in their communities that can be fixed.

We need to get serious about educating our children, you know, we need to get serious about wielding, about claiming and wielding political power. There's a lot of things that were done in the 1950s and 1960s that we have sort of gotten away from. I think...

MARTIN: What would that look? What would that getting serious look like?

PITTS: That's the thing. I think that part of the problem and part of the reason we have not, quote, unquote, gotten serious is because we are waiting on the return of Martin Luther King or we're waiting on the return of some charismatic leader figure and I don't think that's going to happen. I don't think - I think that time in history has passed. So I think that in each of our communities, you know, we have this great technology that sort of binds us and that we can use for uniting and communicating and sharing ideas.

So I think that in each of our communities, in our churches, in our civic organizations, we need to be about the business of organizing and claiming power. How did the Tea Party do it? How did the Tea Party grow from these mumbles of discontent into this force that remade the Republican Party? So it's not - and there is no charismatic leader for the Tea Party, there is no Martin Luther Tea Party so, you know. So I know that it can be done, the fact of the matter is just that it has not been done, perhaps, until now.

ELLISON: May I join in?

MARTIN: Sure, Professor Ellison. Sure.

ELLISON: Yeah. I think it is being done and, you know, I shared that we are organizing this group called "Fearless Dialogues." And we're going to cities across this country not just to have dialogues, but to think constructively about what are the gifts and the resources that are in our communities that are undiscovered and untapped. So we're heading to Nashville at the end of August.

We're already slated to go to Indianapolis and Kansas City and we just got an invitation to go to St. Louis and Chattanooga - to bring together what we call thought leaders - to think about these issues critically, but also begin to change perspectives because I think activism now is perspectival, it's changing how you perceive those around you. And we may not be able to change the world, but we can change three feet around us. We can change how we perceive people - particularly African-American young men that are in our midst, that we overlook, that we don't see, that are unheard.

MARTIN: I just want to press this whole question of what would success look like. We know what success would look like, but what does the, kind of, engagement that each of you seeks look like? I mean, one of the reasons I keep pressing this question is that, you know, it seems to me, just about every week I see a vigil, I see some African-American religious leaders, community groups organizing in these neighborhoods trying to bring attention to the violence within these communities. I mean, just this week in Washington there was this terrible story where, like three people were shot just, you know, blocks from each other, a brother and sister killed on the same night and not really sure why.

And there was a vigil - their parents, their families, their neighbors - they're all out there saying, grieving, and saying and claiming the attention of their neighbors and communities to say, this has to stop. So I see this kind of engagement in these issues. I don't see a lot of people from the Tea Party at these rallies. So my question then becomes, why is it just - is it just African-Americans who are supposed to be engaging in this? Is there no claim upon the resources in that attention of the larger society here? I just - what's supposed to happen?

PITTS: I don't think it's just African-Americans that are engaging in this, but by the same token, I don't believe that African-Americans can wait until the rest of the country catches up to this. It wasn't just, you know, African-Americans who were engaged in the civil rights movement, but at the beginning, it was. It was Martin Luther King and those folks at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and that's where that began and then white people, you know...

MARTIN: And they had a specific request. The specific request was we need to the right to vote unmolested by thugs. We demand the right to live in certain neighborhoods wherever we want and can afford. We want equal opportunity for jobs. What's the question now? What's the request? What's the demand now? Gene?

ROBINSON: Well, there are - there's more than one. There are lots. Here's one thing I've been thinking about recently. Incarceration - too many young, black men get caught in the cycle of incarceration. They get out, they're unemployable - unless they get employed, they go back in. Now, a lot of these are minor drug arrests. Black young men and white young men use marijuana at the same rate, and black young men are four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana use.

Now that's wrong. Why is that? There's no objective reason, yet that means black boys and men are much more likely to be caught in this sort of, vicious cycle that's more like the whirling of a drain. And so that's a specific issue that we should work on and some people are working on, and there are others like that. There's more than one.

MARTIN: Are you - each of you, as you sit here now, encouraged or discouraged by the conversation we are having - that the country is having about this? And I'll go, briefly, around each of you. Leonard Pitts?

PITTS: I was just sharing with Gene before we came in here, that I find myself more discouraged than I would like to be. I find myself disappointed in my country, especially since the events of the last week or two. There is, you know, there's anger, obviously. I think there's a lot of anger within the African-American community right now over what happened. But there is more disappointment because I have always loved my country and I've always thought my country was better than the behavior that I have seen this last week.

And I'm not simply talking about the verdict because, you know, the fact of the matter is, you can make a case on the strict legal merits, that jury had no choice. I'm talking about the fact that before there was a legal case, this man for no reason that I can fathom, looked at this boy and saw a threat. And I'm talking about the fact that so many of us seek to justify, you know, that perception based on nothing, based on absolutely nothing.

MARTIN: Gene Robinson, briefly.

ROBINSON: Specific issues raised by the Trayvon Martin case - I'm actually encouraged because I think we know more about stand-your-ground laws, we know more about what the police did and didn't do at the beginning. I think that question will improve. Overall, I'm discouraged because of the crisis among, particularly among black men. President Obama says we got to focus on it, but there's not going to be a grand, new federal program. We're all going to have to do what we can do. And it's daunting.

MARTIN: Professor Ellison, I'm sorry. I don't have time to ask you this question. We'll have to invite you back to hear more from you.

ELLISON: Sure.

MARTIN: Gregory Ellison is author of "Cut Dead But Still Alive: Caring for African-American Young Men." He's a father of three. He joined us from Emory University in Atlanta where he's an assistant professor. Eugene Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning opinion writer for the Washington Post, father of two. Leonard Pitts is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Miami Herald, a father of five. They were both here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. I hope we'll talk again. I hope it'll be a happier time. Thank you both so much. Thank you all.

ELLISON: Thank you.

ROBINSON: Thank you.

PITTS: Thank you.

MARTIN: That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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