Trayvon Martin: A “can we talk?” moment about race

Every once in a while there is an event that reminds people living in the United States about that original American sin: the fact of slavery and the legacy of racial discrimination, prejudice, hate-based violence, and–perhaps most insidious–the quotidian assumptions and misapprehensions we all have about each other.

Enter George Zimmerman. He shot Trayvon Martin, 17, in Sanford, Fla. in late February, claiming self-defense. Zimmerman is not white, contrary to some of the early reporting; he’s been described in the news media as Hispanic and by his father as “Spanish-speaking.” Still, the 911 call he made as he followed Martin, who was black, puts Zimmerman’s assumptions and misapprehensions about young African-American males in a nutshell.

So where are we in the on-again, off-again conversation about race in America? Hard to say. But, news coverage I caught today brought two examples into sharp focus for me.

How not to foster constructive discussions about race

It first aired as part of Anderson Cooper 360 and was replayed this morning, when I caught the segment. CNN’s Gary Tuchman of and “one of CNN’s top audio engineers” played and replayed a snippet of Zimmerman’s 911 call, trying to hear if he had actually said what they thought he said. First, the Tuchman asked the engineer to play it raw, at normal speed. We learn the phrase in question lasts 1.6 seconds. Then Tuchman says, “So let’s listen to it ten times in a row if we can.”

It got ridiculous pretty quickly. Whether or not you hear the phrase in question may depend on your point of view, but that’s another matter. The parsing of the 1.6 seconds took about 2.5 minutes–time that surely could have been better spent.

How to help foster constructive discussions about race

This afternoon, I was listening to NPR’s Talk of the Nation in the car and was reminded of one of the many reasons I admire Michele Norris. She spoke about her Race Card Project. Here’s how it’s described at

“NPR’s Michele Norris has been engaged for over a year with her Race Card Project, asking people to express their thoughts on race in six words or less. Many have written to her with thoughts on the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, which prompted a nationwide movement calling for justice.”

As Norris told host Neal Conan, cards have been coming in all year. As we’ve become embroiled in the Trayvon Martin case, the number of submissions has picked up.

I’ve written about my own racial background on this blog. My black mother and my white father have been married for going on 44 years. I sometime wonder about how they managed it.

  • Did it help that most of their married life was lived overseas, especially the early part?
  • My mother is Belizean, and grew up in a society where the majority of the population looked more or less like her. In a very blended country she saw examples of “racial mixing” all the time.
  • My father, an American, has always been a man ahead of his time–a social maverick, if you will.
  • Their families were both fairly supportive–or at least not obstructionist–about their union.
  • Both of my parents are optimists.

All of that being said, I had my share of identity issues as a teen and young adult. Who doesn’t? Mine just happened to be around whether I needed to choose a race; act a certain way; date a certain way; dress or speak like this or that. Exhausting! Realizing it was no good trying to be anything other than myself, I got over it around my early twenties.

Anyway, as we wade through the news coverage and social media conversation around the sad and senseless death of Trayvon Martin, I hope we turn to our friends, families and co-workers and ask: “Can we talk?”

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