The headlines last week read, “Obama Explains Black America to White America,” heralding a teachable moment in the country’s history.
The news article summarized President Obama’s speech to the nation a few days after George Zimmerman was declared “not guilty” by six women jurors (five White and one Puerto Rican) for killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenage walking home to his father’s house. Zimmerman, a White man with Hispanic roots, had thought Martin looked suspicious and followed him. During the trial, Zimmerman successfully argued that during the subsequent fight, he feared for his life and used a concealed gun to shoot Martin to his death.
The news article noted that the President’s intent was to explain that a collective history is the backdrop against which contemporary African Americans experienced that verdict:
I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away…. I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.
Those praising the President’s speech were exuberant that he had provided a historical context for the anguish experienced by millions of Black African Americans as well as sympathetic members of all races upon hearing the verdict.
Detractors of the speech pointed out that public policy addressing current issues of the day cannot be built by focusing on the past. Most pertinent now, these commentators claim, are the high rate of Black-on-Black crime and disintegration of the Black family. Naturally, these claims led to counter-charges that a focus on what was happening in the Black community in the absence of historical context led to overly simplistic — and false — conclusions.
Reading the accusations back and forth, I was struck by the parallels between the dissension and what my coauthor and I had explained in Reframing Change about bridging differences. As we noted, dominant group members tend to see cross-cultural conflicts in the here and now. Nondominant group members frame them in a historical context. Under these circumstances, differences are more easily bridged if dominant group members can display empathy for the past, even while promoting policies designed for the future.
The situation also reminded me of a similar public upheaval in 2008 after Proposition 8, a California ballot initiative was passed declaring that only marriage between a man and a woman would be recognized as valid in California.
A few days after it passed, I sat with a mixed group of straights and gays discussing the implications of the ruling. The gays were especially distraught – speaking openly about the pain of being denied this very basic citizenship right to citizenship– the right to marry whom one pleased.
At the time, I was taken by the enormous parallels between what was happening with gay rights at the time and my memories of the civil rights movement in the 1950s. The elimination of legalized segregation in the country had had a similar series of legal wins and losses along the way. Listening to my colleagues decry the implications of the California vote, I thought it was inevitable that equal rights for the GLBT community would eventually prevail and said so. “This reminds me of the civil rights movement in the 1950s,” I declared. “This will be overturned. The train has already left the station.”
The reaction toward me was swift and harsh. One woman, carefully phrasing her words, told me that I had no right to try to tell gays and lesbians how to think or feel about the California decision. “You as a heterosexual don’t know what it feels like to be denied to the right to marry someone you love,” she declared.
I was stunned. Never mind that I had ridden the back of the bus for most of my childhood. Never mind that as a young child, I had read about the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till for whistling at White girl. Never mind that I had once loved someone of a different race and couldn’t see my way to bridge the racial divide to make it work.
It was their collective pain and their time to voice it. As a heterosexual, I was a dominant group member and they as GBLTs were nondominant. It was their turn to educate and explain and my turn to listen and learn.
I shut up and listened.
Note: Cross-posted at EthosConsultancyNZ: http://www.ethosconsultancynz.com/profiles/blogs/obama-the-racial-divide-and-a-teachable-moment?xg_source=activity
Bio: Dr. Jean Kantambu Latting is a leadership consultant and researcher, focusing on change at the personal, organizational, and community levels. President of Leading Consciously and Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Change in the Graduate College of Social Work, University of Houston, Jean specializes in helping people examine and change their systems, relationships, and perceptions so that they might better accomplish their goals. She coauthored Reframing change: How to deal with workplace dynamics, influence others, and bring people together to initiate positive change with Jean Ramsey, published by Praeger.
- The next president? cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by Sunil Garg: http://flickr.com/photos/sunilonln/2349935297/
- The US Civil Rights Movement. cc licensed ( BY ND ) flickr photo by U.S. Embassy The Hague: http://flickr.com/photos/usembassythehague/8443765489/
- Chicago DOMA ruling rally. cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo by WBEZ: http://flickr.com/photos/chicagopublicradio/9147582567/