The Painful Paradoxes of Race

Obama, Booker, Problems & Progress

“In the jewelry store, they lock the case when I walk in,” the young African-American man wrote. “In the shoe store, they help the white man who walks in after me. In the shopping mall they follow me. ... Black male: Guilty until proven innocent.”

“I have lost control of my emotions,” he declared. “Rage, Frustration, Anguish, Despondency, Fatigue, Bitterness, Animosity, Exasperation, Sadness. Emotions once suppressed, emotions once channeled, now are let loose. Why?”

The words came not in response to the George Zimmerman verdict in the Trayvon Martin killing but rather to the acquittal of the police officers in the Rodney King case. The author of the May 6, 1992, column in the Stanford University student newspaper: Cory Booker, now the nationally celebrated mayor of Newark and the front-runner to be the next senator from New Jersey.

Booker pointed me toward his angry essay while on a visit to Washington last week. We spoke over a late breakfast the day before President Obama went to the White House briefing room to issue his powerful reminder to Americans that “Trayvon Martin could have been me thirty-five years ago.”

It tells us something important about America in 2013 that two exceptionally successful African American men, both of them widely acclaimed across the lines of race, chose independently to underscore the same truth about the Martin killing: that, in the president’s words, “the African American community is looking at this issue though a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”

And both focused resolutely on how to make things better. My interview with Booker didn’t start with the Zimmerman trial. Instead, the practically-minded mayor spoke enthusiastically about a program he had established in cooperation with the libertarian-conservative Manhattan Institute to help men released from prison become better fathers. “The right intervention,” he said, “can create radically different outcomes.”

Booker knows about crime. He described his experience of holding a young man who had just been shot, trying and failing to keep him from dying in his arms. He returned home disconsolate and washed off the young man’s blood.

His account, and Obama’s later words, put the lie to outrageous claims by right-wing talk jocks and provocateurs that those upset by the outcome in the Zimmerman trial are willfully ignoring the affliction of crime committed by African Americans against each other. On the contrary: African American leaders, particularly mayors such as Booker, were struggling to stem violence in their own communities long before it became a convenient topic for those trying to sweep aside the profound problems raised by the Martin case.

Booker fully accepts that there is a right to self-defense. “One of the things I learned from the good cops is that there were some times when they were completely justified in pulling their weapons and killing somebody,” he said. But those good cops, he insisted, also understood that their first obligation was “to defuse a situation,” to try to prevent violence. Zimmerman, Booker added, “having been told by the police to back away, had so many opportunities to defuse the situation.” And, as the president suggested, “stand your ground” laws have exactly the opposite effect: They encourage, rather than discourage, confrontation, particularly on the part of a person with a gun.

Why, Booker wonders, do we have our famous conversations about race only “when things go terribly wrong”?

As we neared the end of our chat, he offered a thought you are more likely to hear from a preacher than a politician. “Fear is a toxic state of being,” Booker said. “You’ve got to lead with love.”

Talking to Booker was a reminder of the bundle of contradictions that is the story of race in America, precisely what Obama was underscoring when he spoke of our progress as well as our difficulties. Booker -- again, like the president -- was concerned above all with the practical things government and society can do to battle child poverty and reverse rising inequality. One of the central problems of our time, Booker said, is “the decoupling between wage growth and economic growth,” a development that creates so many other social challenges.

The dignity and grace of Trayvon Martin’s family should inspire us all to keep our eyes on the future. We should not blind ourselves either to the persistence of racism or to our triumphs in pushing it back. That is the message of Booker’s old column, and it harmonizes with the candid words from our first black president. We have come a long way and have a long way to go.

(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).



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Even the Tampa area police departments would not hire that wannabe Zimmerman as a police officer.That's the only sign of progress.Ive' seen in the last 30 years. .  

“Fear is a toxic state of being,” Booker said. “You’ve got to lead with love.” 


Well said Mr. Booker and doing that is a challenge for all of us but is an important meditation and reminder.


The #1 problem in urban areas such as the one in which I reside is black crime,  the reason why shop owners and everyone else, black as well as whites, hispanics and asians, are on their guard all the time when in the presence of those regarded for abundant repeated reasons as predators.  Unless and until African Americans address this cancer within their own community, then there will be no progress, just business as usual.

"Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.", only in his imagination and an unquestioning, gullible liberal media. At seventeen Obama was being raised by white grandparents, attended an exclusive private high school, associated with white students and the only thing he had in common with Trayvon is they were both 'pot' heads. Trayvon was not living with his parents or at his home, had been found,itis reported, with stolen property and burglar tools which was quashed by the police and referred to the school for discipline action and had been suspended by the school.

The Presidemt, Mayor Booker and Mr.Dionne all claim that the situation must be should be viewed through Trayvon's eyes and experience as a young black man while ignoring the view through Mr.Zimmerman's eyes and expereinces as a neighboorhood watch volunteer in a community that had been plagued by breakins and thefts by young black men.


Trayvon Martin attracted attention not just because he was black, but also because he was young and male.  And those 3 characteristics, young, black, and male, point disproportionately to crime.   When even Jesse Jackson expresses fear of young, black males the issue cannot be primarily about race.  It becomes about a subset of people with those characteristics who are negatively impacting others, particularly those with similar characteristics.  Only after that group behaves differently will others attitudes change.

But no one said anything about white on white crime when a young white man walked into a school and shot down 26 young children. There was not analysis of him based on his race even though almost all serial and spree killers are white and male.


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