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History > 2013 > USA > African-Americans (I)





President Obama Speaks on Trayvon Martin

President Obama makes a statement about Trayvon Martin

and the verdict of the court trial that followed the Florida teenager's death


Published on Jul 19, 2013

YouTube > White House

















Alabama Pardons 3 ‘Scottsboro Boys’

After 80 Years


November 21, 2013
The New York Times


ATLANTA — More than 80 years after they were falsely accused and wrongly convicted in the rapes of a pair of white women in north Alabama, three black men received posthumous pardons on Thursday, essentially absolving the last of the “Scottsboro Boys” of criminal misconduct and closing one of the most notorious chapters of the South’s racial history.

The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles voted unanimously during a hearing in Montgomery to issue the pardons to Haywood Patterson, Charles Weems and Andy Wright, all of whom were repeatedly convicted of the rapes in the 1930s.

“The Scottsboro Boys have finally received justice,” Gov. Robert J. Bentley said in a statement.

Thursday’s vote brought to an end to a case that yielded two landmark Supreme Court opinions — one about the inclusion of blacks on juries and another about the need for adequate legal representation at trial — but continued to hang over Alabama as an enduring mark of its tainted past.

“It’s certainly something that when people hear it, they automatically associate it with the state in a negative manner,” said John Miller, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama who helped to prepare the pardon petition. “Alabama has worked as hard as anybody has to make sure that, to the extent that we can amend a legacy that is not flattering, we are trying to do the right things now.”

Others applauded the pardons but said they wanted to see the state consider the lessons of the flawed prosecutions in an era when Alabama has the nation’s third-highest incarceration rate.

“I’d like to see my state do more proactive things and get to a point where we don’t have to be correcting mistakes,” said Fred Gray, a civil rights lawyer who represented Rosa Parks in the 1950s and submitted an affidavit endorsing the pardon petition. “We should set up a procedure to prevent it from occurring in the first place, and we just haven’t really done that.”

The men were among the group of nine teenagers who were first tried in April 1931 after a fight between blacks and whites aboard a train passing through Jackson County, in Alabama’s northeastern corner, led to allegations of sexual assault. Within weeks of the reported rapes, an Alabama judge had sentenced eight of them to death following their convictions by all-white juries. The trial of the youngest defendant, Roy Wright, ended in a hung jury amid a dispute about whether he should be executed, and he was never retried.

The United States Supreme Court intervened the following year, setting off a long stretch of additional appeals and trials, including one in 1933 where Ruby Bates, one of the accusers, recanted her story.

Prosecutors dropped the rape charges against five of the men in July 1937, but four others — including those pardoned on Thursday — were convicted again and initially sentenced to death or decades in prison.

State officials ultimately agreed to release three of them on parole, including Clarence Norris, who was pardoned by Gov. George Wallace in 1976. Mr. Patterson escaped from prison and fled to Michigan.

The legal wrangling became a cultural mainstay, the subject of books, songs, television documentaries and even a Broadway production.

But Sheila Washington’s interest in the Scottsboro Boys was born of a less prominent moment: She came across a copy of Mr. Patterson’s memoir in a bedroom when she was 17 years old and vowed to help the men get justice. She later founded the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center and, in 2009, began a campaign to seek pardons for the men, with the backing of researchers and lawyers throughout the state.

“I think we all realized that the convictions had been a terrible injustice,” said Judge Steven Haddock, who became a supporter.

But Ms. Washington quickly learned that while Alabama officials were willing to consider pardons, they lacked the legal mechanism to grant them posthumously.

Ms. Washington’s efforts led her to State Senator Arthur Orr, a white lawmaker from Decatur, a city about an hour from Scottsboro. He and other legislators agreed to sponsor a measure, unanimously approved this year, that created a process by which the Alabama authorities could issue pardons in select felony cases “to remedy social injustice associated with racial discrimination.”

On Thursday, Mr. Orr said that the legislation and the hearing it prompted had amounted to a moment of catharsis for Alabama.

“Today is a reminder that it is never too late to right a wrong. We cannot go back in time and change the course of history, but we can change how we respond to history,” Mr. Orr said. “The passage of time and doing nothing is no excuse. This hearing marks a significant milestone for these young men, their families and for our great state by officially recognizing and correcting a tremendous wrong.”

    Alabama Pardons 3 ‘Scottsboro Boys’ After 80 Years, NYT, 21.11.2013,






Disrespect, Race and Obama


November 15, 2013
The New York Times


In an interview with the BBC this week, Oprah Winfrey said of President Obama: “There is a level of disrespect for the office that occurs. And that occurs, in some cases, and maybe even many cases, because he’s African-American.”

With that remark, Winfrey touched on an issue that many Americans have wrestled with: To what extent does this president’s race animate those loyal to him and those opposed? Is race a primary motivator or a subordinate, more elusive one, tainting motivations but not driving them?

To some degree, the answers lie with the questioners. There are different perceptions of racial realities. What some see as slights, others see as innocent opposition. But there are some objective truths here. Racism is a virus that is growing clever at avoiding detection. Race consciousness is real. Racial assumptions and prejudices are real. And racism is real. But these realities can operate without articulation and beneath awareness. For those reasons, some can see racism where it is absent, and others can willfully ignore any possibility that it could ever be present.

To wit, Rush Limbaugh responded to Winfrey’s comments in his usual acerbic way, lacking all nuance:

“If black people in this country are so mistreated and so disrespected, how in the name of Sam Hill did you happen? Would somebody explain that to me? If there’s a level of disrespect simply because he’s black, then how, Oprah, have you managed to become the — at one time — most popular and certainly wealthiest television personality? How does that happen?”

No one has ever accused Limbaugh of being a complex thinker, but the intellectual deficiency required to achieve that level of arrogance and ignorance is staggering.

Anyone with even a child’s grasp of race understands that for many minorities success isn’t synonymous with the absence of obstacles, but often requires the overcoming of obstacles. Furthermore, being willing to be entertained by someone isn’t the same as being willing to be led by them.

And finally, affinity and racial animosity can dwell together in the same soul. You can like and even admire a person of another race while simultaneously disparaging the race as a whole. One can even be attracted to persons of different races and still harbor racial animus toward their group. Generations of sexual predation and miscegenation during and after slavery in this country have taught us that.

Alas, simpletons have simple understandings of complex concepts.

But it is reactions like Limbaugh’s that lead many of the president’s supporters to believe that racial sensitivity is in retreat and racial hostility is on the rise.

To be sure, the Internet is rife with examples of derogatory, overtly racial comments and imagery referring to the president and his family. But the question remains: Are we seeing an increase in racial hostility or simply an elevation — or uncovering — of it? And are those racist attitudes isolated or do they represent a serious problem?

Much of the discussion about the president, his opposition and his race has centered on the Tea Party, fairly or not.

In one take on race and the Tea Party that went horribly wrong this week, Washington Post opinion writer Richard Cohen wrote:

“Today’s G.O.P. is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the Tea Party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.”

What exactly are “conventional views” in this context? They appear to refer specifically to opinions about the color of people’s skin.

Cohen seemed to want to recast racial intolerance — and sexual identity discomfort — in a more humane light: as an extension of traditional values rather than as an artifact of traditional bigotry. In addition, Cohen’s attempt to absolve the entirety of the Tea Party without proof fails in the same way that blanket condemnations do. Overreach is always the enemy.

I don’t know what role, if any, race plays in the feelings of Tea Party supporters. It is impossible to know the heart of another person (unless they unambiguously reveal themselves), let alone the hearts of millions.

But nerves are raw, antennas are up and race has become a lightning rod in the Obama era. This is not Obama’s doing, but the simple result of his being.

    Disrespect, Race and Obama, NYT, 15.11.2013,






Fatal Shooting of Black Woman

Outside Detroit Stirs Racial Tensions


November 14, 2013
The New York Times


DEARBORN HEIGHTS, Mich. — Shortly before 1 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 2, a young woman, just a year out of high school, crashed the car she was driving along a residential street on Detroit’s west side.

The woman, Renisha Marie McBride, 19, had veered into a parked car. As people emerged from their houses, she appeared disoriented and troubled, some witnesses said, walking off into the darkness before returning for a time, then walking off again. Someone heard her say she wanted to go home.

Several hours later and six blocks away, just outside the Detroit city limits in this mostly white suburb, Ms. McBride, who was black, was dead on the front porch of a stranger’s home, a shotgun blast to her face.

In the days since, the death has stirred long-simmering racial tensions between mostly black Detroit and its whiter suburbs and provoked comparisons to other racially charged cases around the country. Protesters held a vigil outside the house where she died, whose owner has not been publicly identified. The authorities say he thought Ms. McBride, who tests have shown was intoxicated, was trying to break in.

Anguished family members and friends, wearing shirts with messages like “Justice for Nisha,” say they believe that Ms. McBride was merely seeking help at random homes after the crash, and they were troubled that the man who shot her had not been arrested.

And civil rights activists in Detroit have pointedly recalled the cases of Trayvon Martin, the black teenager who was shot last year in a fatal encounter in Florida, and Jonathan Ferrell, a black man who was shot to death by a police officer in Charlotte, N.C., in September when he sought help after a car accident.

The Wayne County prosecutor was expected to announce on Friday whether charges would be brought against the homeowner, but essential details were still lacking to explain how a car accident had led, over a stretch of several hours in the middle of a night, to death on a tiny concrete porch.

Some people here cautioned against presuming that race played a role. Some neighbors of the man, who they said is in his 50s and lives alone in his small house, said the shooting struck them as a tragic accident. Most of all, a long list of questions remained unanswered about events that night, including what actually took place in Ms. McBride’s final moments.

“At the time I didn’t think much of what I was seeing,” said LeDell Hammond, 23, who said he was among a group of neighbors who observed Ms. McBride, seeming dazed, then disappearing, after the car crash along their block of Bramell Street. “But to have this end with that? It’s hard for me to find a way to make it add up.”

In a way, the anger here has become more muted since Kym L. Worthy, the Wayne County prosecutor, made it clear that her office was studying the case. Ms. Worthy, who is black, is widely viewed as a tough, independent prosecutor. She is known, in part, for her prosecution of two white Detroit police officers in the beating death in 1992 of a black motorist, Malice Green, and for pursuing criminal charges in 2008 against Kwame Kilpatrick, then Detroit’s mayor, who would eventually be convicted of federal crimes.

Even Ms. McBride’s family had praise for Ms. Worthy. “There will be justice,” Bernita Spinks, her aunt, said in an interview.

Ms. McBride, who graduated from Southfield High School last year, had once told her sister that she wanted to become a police officer, relatives said, but she had been working for a company that provides temporary workers for light industrial facilities, officials at the company said.

Ms. Spinks remembered her as an average student, a standout soccer player and mostly a loner whose father had spoiled her with several cars since she got her license. “She was a peaceful, kindhearted young lady,” Ms. Spinks said. Family members have said they last spoke with her around 11 p.m. on Nov. 1, shortly before the car accident.

At 12:57 a.m., the Detroit police received a 911 call about a crash. A police spokesman said no police car was sent out because the call was deemed a low priority; no one was reported injured and the driver had left. Along Bramell Street, neighbors described hearing a speeding car and a loud crash, and then seeing a young-looking driver who left, returned, then left again.

At 1:23 a.m., the Detroit police got another 911 call about the accident, the spokesman said, from someone who said that the driver had returned and seemed intoxicated. Mr. Hammond said that at least one neighbor tried to offer Ms. McBride help, but she seemed not to respond. He said he could not see any visible injuries or bleeding. Mainly, he said, she seemed disoriented.

Detroit police officers and an ambulance arrived at 1:37 a.m., the police said, but the woman was gone. By 2:50 a.m., the car was towed and the police left.

Sometime before dawn — and even the timing of the events that followed remain unclear — Ms. McBride was shot in Dearborn Heights, just across Detroit’s border, as she stood on the front porch of a house along Outer Drive, a boulevard-like street of compact homes and trim lawns.

Beyond that, the police in Dearborn Heights, a suburb of about 57,000 people, 86 percent of whom are white, have released few details of the shooting, saying they are awaiting a decision by the prosecutor.

An autopsy showed that Ms. McBride, who was 5-foot-4 and weighed 184 pounds, had a shotgun wound slightly to the left side of her nose. There was no sign that the wound was from close range, the autopsy said. It deemed the death a homicide. Toxicology results showed that her blood alcohol content was nearly 0.218, or almost three times the legal limit for driving.

On a recent afternoon, no one answered the door at the house; the blinds were drawn and a doorbell was visibly broken. The police have said the homeowner believed that she was trying to break in. Cheryl Carpenter, a lawyer for the homeowner, who did not return calls for comment, told The Detroit News, “I’m confident when the evidence comes it will show that my client was justified and acted as a reasonable person would who was in fear for his life.”

But Ms. McBride’s relatives say that they believe her cellphone had run out of power, and that she was knocking on doors in search of help. “If he was scared, all he had to do was call 911,” said Gerald E. Thurswell, a lawyer representing Ms. McBride’s family. “Why would you need a shotgun for an unarmed girl outside your door? And the fact that she was intoxicated makes no difference at all.”

Michigan’s “self-defense” act states that a person may use deadly force if “the individual honestly and reasonably believes that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent the imminent death of or imminent great bodily harm to himself of herself or to another individual.”

Legal experts said a criminal case would probably be complicated, in part because few people saw what happened.

“There’s likely only one eyewitness to this because the woman can’t tell her story,” said Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University Law School. “There are things we’re just never going to know.”


Steven Yaccino contributed reporting from Chicago,

and Susan C. Beachy from New York.

    Fatal Shooting of Black Woman Outside Detroit Stirs Racial Tensions,
    NYT, 14.11.2013,






Major Owens, 77,

Education Advocate in Congress,



October 22, 2013
The New York Times


Major R. Owens, a former librarian who went to Congress from Brooklyn and remained there for 24 years, fighting for more federal aid for education and other liberal causes, died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 77.

His death, at NYU Langone Medical Center, was caused by renal and heart failure, his son Chris said. Mr. Owens lived in Brooklyn.

Mr. Owens, as a state senator and a former chief administrator of New York City’s antipoverty program, was a prominent figure in Brooklyn when he won the House seat vacated by the retiring Shirley Chisholm in 1982. Fourteen years earlier, she became the first black woman elected to Congress.

Mr. Owens represented an overwhelmingly Democratic swath of the borough that included Crown Heights and parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Flatbush and Park Slope. The district encompassed stretches of severe blight and poverty, along with areas of middle-class stability and pockets of affluence.

He viewed education as “the kingpin issue,” as he put it in an article he wrote for the publication Black Issues in Higher Education. “We have to believe that all power and progress really begins with education,” he wrote.

As a member of the House committee that dealt with education, Mr. Owens spent much time sponsoring and shaping measures to put more federal money into reducing high school dropout rates, hiring more teachers and improving library services. Many of his provisions became parts of wider education bills.

In 1985, he wrote parts of a successful bill that authorized a $100 million fund to strengthen historically black colleges. In a hearing on the legislation, he said the fund was needed because “most of the historically black colleges are struggling.” He recalled his own days at one of those institutions, Morehouse College in Atlanta, from which he graduated in 1956.

“Most of the youngsters there were poor, from very poor backgrounds,” he said, and Morehouse “played a vital role of nurturing.”

Mr. Owens, who was considered one of the most liberal members of the House, opposed an agreement between President Bill Clinton and Congressional Republicans to give states more flexibility in how they spent billions in federal school aid.

“We cannot leave it up to the states,” he said. “They have not done a good job.”

On other fronts, Mr. Owens was a floor manager of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, aimed at curbing discrimination against handicapped people. He defended organized labor and supported proposals to prohibit the deportation of illegal immigrants who fell into various categories.

Mr. Owens, whose first wife, the former Ethel Werfel, was white and Jewish, frequently urged blacks and Jews to bridge their differences.

He condemned the Nation of Islam as a “hate-mongering fringe group” after anti-Semitic remarks by its leader, Louis Farrakhan. Even before tensions between blacks and Hasidic Jews in Crown Heights erupted into riots in summer 1991, he denounced the “Rambo types on both sides” who, he said, only poured oil on the strife.

Mr. Owens was a low-key politician, but he had a colorful streak; he wrote and even performed rap lyrics, for example. He titled one number, about male sexuality, “The Viagra Monologues,” a takeoff on the name of Eve Ensler’s play “The Vagina Monologues.”

Other lyrics, which he performed in open-mike sessions at cafes and entered into the Congressional Record, dealt with goings-on in Washington. One rap number commented on a 1990 budget accord between Congress and the White House. Here is how it began:

At the big white D.C. mansion

There’s a meeting of the mob

And the question on the table

Is which beggars will they rob.

Major Robert Odell Owens was born in Collierville, Tenn., on June 28, 1936, to Ezekiel and Edna Owens. His father worked in a furniture factory.

In 1956, the year he graduated from Morehouse, Mr. Owens married Ms. Werfel. The marriage ended in divorce. He later married the former Maria Cuprill.

After earning a master’s degree in library science in 1957 from Atlanta University (which later became Clark Atlanta), Mr. Owens moved to New York City and worked as a librarian in Brooklyn from 1958 to the mid-1960s.

He was executive director of the Brownsville Community Council, an antipoverty group, until Mayor John V. Lindsay appointed him to oversee the city’s antipoverty program in 1968 as commissioner of the Community Development Agency, a post he held until 1973.

Mr. Owens was a state senator from Brooklyn from 1975 until 1982, when he won the Democratic primary for Ms. Chisholm’s House seat. In a district so heavily Democratic, the primary victory was tantamount to election.

His opponent in the primary, Vander L. Beatty, also a state senator from Brooklyn, was later convicted of forgery and conspiracy in seeking to get the result overturned.

In his 11 campaigns for re-election Mr. Owens faced significant opposition only twice, in 2000 and 2004, when his primary opponents contended, to no avail, that he was no longer attentive to the needs of his constituents, especially the many of Caribbean origin.

He retired from Congress in 2006. His son Chris lost in a four-way primary race to succeed him.

Afterward Mr. Owens taught public administration at Medgar Evers College, a Brooklyn branch of the City University of New York. His book “The Peacock Elite: A Case Study of the Congressional Black Caucus” was published in 2011.

Besides his son Chris, from his first marriage, Mr. Owens is survived by his wife; two other sons from his first marriage, Millard and Geoffrey, an actor who appeared on television as the son-in-law Elvin on “The Cosby Show”; three brothers, Ezekiel Jr., Mack and Bobby; a sister, Edna Owens; a stepson, Carlos Cuprill; a stepdaughter, Cecilia Cuprill-Nunez; four grandchildren and four step-grandchildren.

    Major Owens, 77, Education Advocate in Congress, Dies, NYT, 22.10.2013,






James A. Emanuel,

Poet Who Wrote of Racism,

Dies at 92


October 11, 2013
The New York Times


James A. Emanuel, a poet, educator and critic who published more than a dozen volumes of his poetry, much of it after his frustration with racism in the United States helped motivate him to move to France, died on Sept. 27 in Paris. He was 92.

His death was confirmed by his nephew Jim Smith.

Mr. Emanuel, who grew up in Nebraska, wrote prolifically and to steady approval for more than half a century, but he is not as well known as many of the writers who share space with him in anthologies of African-American literature. Geography and an inclination to stand apart played a role.

In the 1960s he taught at City College in New York, where he started the first class on black poetry, wrote academic studies of Langston Hughes and other black writers, and mentored young scholars, including the critic Addison Gayle Jr.

Even as his reputation grew, he became increasingly frustrated with racism in America. When European universities began offering him teaching positions in the late ’60s, he accepted. By the early ’80s, after the death of his only child in Los Angeles, he had vowed never to return to the United States. He never did.

He wrote often of racism, including in an early work, “The Negro”:

Never saw him.

Never can.


Haunting man.

Eyes a-saucer,

Yessir bossir,

Dice a-clicking,

Razor flicking.

The-ness froze him

In a dance.

A-ness never

Had a chance.

Naomi Long Madgett, a poet and the founder of Lotus Press, which published many of his works, said Mr. Emanuel was masterfully precise, careful to leave room for readers to participate.

“Some poets don’t know when a poem should stop,” Ms. Madgett said. “It’s much harder to write a short poem than it is to write one that just rambles on and on. James Emanuel knew what to say and what to leave out.”

James Andrew Emanuel was born on June 15, 1921, in Alliance, Neb. His father, Alfred, died when he was young. His mother, Cora, was a schoolteacher and a driving force in his life who tended to keep to herself.

“Buzzards fly in droves,” she often told her son, recalled a family friend, David L. Evans. “But the eagle flies alone.”

Mr. Emanuel served in the Army from 1942 to 1946, spending two years as the secretary to Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr., the Army’s first black general. He graduated from Howard University in 1950 and received his master’s from Northwestern in 1953. He earned his doctorate in English and comparative literature from Columbia while he was teaching at City College, starting as an English instructor in 1957 and retiring as a professor in 1983.

In 1967 he published his first book, “Langston Hughes,” a close analysis of that poet’s work adapted from his doctoral thesis.

“He wrote with great insight and skill about Langston Hughes, and appreciated his genius when many other academics didn’t,” Arnold Rampersad, a professor at Stanford who has written an acclaimed biography of Hughes, wrote in an e-mail.

In 1968, Mr. Emanuel and Theodore L. Gross edited “Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America,” and Mr. Emanuel published his first book of poetry, “The Treehouse and Other Poems.” More than a dozen other books followed, most of them poetry, including “Black Man Abroad,” in 1978; “Whole Grain: Collected Poems, 1958-1989,” in 1991; and “The Force and the Reckoning,” a blend of autobiography, poems, essays and other writing, in 2001.

His poem “Deadly James (For All the Victims of Police Brutality)” was about the death in 1983 of his only child, James A. Jr. The circumstances of the death are unclear, but Mr. Emanuel said his son committed suicide after being beaten by “three cowardly cops.”

“I never speak of it,” he said in a 2007 interview for the Web site Cosmoetica.

Mr. Emanuel’s marriage to the former Mattie Etha Johnson ended in divorce. No immediate family members survive.

Mr. Emanuel was a meticulous worker and archivist.

“Multiple drafts of a given poem frequently reveal not only the creative process through alterations and corrections but also indicate the day, time and location of composition as well as sources of inspiration, such as newspaper articles, opera tickets, photographs and restaurant receipts,” the Library of Congress, where he donated his papers in the late 1990s, noted in a summary.

His correspondence includes exchanges with the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, the novelist Ralph Ellison and the scholar Houston A. Baker.

In his later years, Mr. Emanuel claimed to have invented a new form of literature: the jazz haiku, stanzas of 17 syllables he read to the accompaniment of jazz music. Like the music, they felt improvisational even as they respected structure:

Four-letter word JAZZ:

naughty, sexy, cerebral,

but solarplexy.

    James A. Emanuel, Poet Who Wrote of Racism, Dies at 92,
    NYT, 11.10.2013,






Michael Ward,

Survivor of ’85 Bombing

by Philadelphia Police,

Is Dead at 41


September 27, 2013
The New York Times


When the boy ran from the house, he was burned over a fifth of his body and so malnourished that at 13 he looked like a child of 9.

He had never been to school and could not read, write, use a toothbrush or tell time. His mother would die in the fire he had fled.

Yet after years of rehabilitation from injuries physical and psychological, he graduated from high school, served in the Army, became a father and made a career as a long-haul trucker and a barber.

The boy, then known as Birdie Africa, and later as Michael Ward, was one of just two people — and the only child — to survive the Move bombing, the 1985 Philadelphia debacle in which police officers seeking to rout a black separatist group touched off a fire that killed 11 people, 5 of them children, and destroyed three city blocks.

Mr. Ward, 41, died Sept. 20 while vacationing aboard a cruise ship in the Caribbean. An investigator for the Brevard County, Fla., medical examiner’s office told The Associated Press that Mr. Ward’s body was found in a hot tub on the ship, the Carnival Dream. The apparent cause was accidental drowning.

The Move bombing endures in the national memory as one of the most shameful episodes in Philadelphia’s history.

In an interview on Friday, the filmmaker Jason Osder, who made a documentary about the bombing, said that Mr. Ward’s death “in a strange way has reminded us of the nature of the event itself: it’s tragic that he died young, but it serves as a reminder of the other five children that didn’t even live to age 41.”

Mr. Osder’s film, “Let the Fire Burn,” which is organized around 13-year-old Michael’s videotaped testimony at the official inquiry into the bombing, is scheduled to open at Film Forum in New York on Wednesday and nationwide afterward.

On May 13, 1985, hundreds of police officers converged on Move’s fortified row house in West Philadelphia, intent on serving arrest warrants on several of its members. After a gun battle during which the police failed to dislodge the group, they dropped explosives on the roof.

The explosion started a fire that destroyed Move’s house and 60 others, leaving some 250 people homeless. All of the 11 dead were Move members or their children; only Michael and Ramona Africa, an adult in the group, survived.

Although Move positioned itself as a radical back-to-nature group, it was run, in the young Mr. Ward’s accounts, far more like a cult.

Michael Moses Ward — the name his father gave him after he was rescued — was born Olewolffe Momer Puim Ward on Dec. 19, 1971, the son of Andino Ward and the former Rhonda Harris.

His parents separated when he was about 2, and he spent his early childhood with his mother in a Move commune in Virginia, where they became known as Rhonda and Birdie Africa. (In solidarity with Move’s founder, John Africa, né Vincent Leaphart, members took Africa as their surname.) Michael and his mother later went to live with the group in Philadelphia.

As Michael testified afterward, Move’s children were forbidden cooked food and contact with outsiders. While the adults around them ate hot meals, the children subsisted largely on a diet of raw fruit and vegetables, deemed purer — and therefore fit for children — by the movement’s leaders.

Toys were also forbidden, though the children grew skilled at spotting neighborhood children’s discards on the street and secreting them about the house.

“We would poke little holes in the wall and hide toys there,” Mr. Ward, who spoke to the news media only rarely, said in a 1995 interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I remember I had a toy soldier hidden in the wall in the basement.”

Michael and the other children resolved to run away. When Move’s leaders got wind of their plan, he said in the Inquirer interview, they told the children that if they did, they would be tracked down and killed.

Testifying in the fall of 1985 in the city’s inquiry into the bombing, Michael told of huddling in the basement during the standoff, listening to bullets fly and then hearing an explosion (“It shook the whole house up,” he said) before being pushed by his mother into an alley behind the house.

Afterward, he was reunited with his father, who lived outside Philadelphia and had been searching for him for years, unaware that he was so close at hand.

He learned to read and write, graduating from high school in Lansdale, Pa., where he was on the football team, and attending junior college briefly. From 1997 to 2001, he served in the Army, attaining the rank of sergeant.

Move’s legacy remained visible in the burn scars on Mr. Ward’s face, arms and torso. It could be discerned in other ways as well.

“I have a hard time getting close to anybody, feeling anything about anybody,” Mr. Ward told The Inquirer. “It has to do with the way I was brought up.”

He added: “It’s not even so much the fire. I had some bad dreams about the fire when I was little, but not anymore. The things that bother me most are the things I remember about Move before the fire. There are some things that happened that I can’t talk about.”

As was widely reported, under the terms of a 1991 settlement with the City of Philadelphia, Mr. Ward and his father were to receive a lump-sum payment of $840,000, followed by a series of lifetime monthly payments starting at $1,000 and increasing over the years.

Andino Ward has said publicly that all of the initial payment went to legal fees; Michael Ward said that he had never grown rich from the rest.

Michael Ward, who lived in Pennsylvania, was divorced. Besides his father, his survivors include a son, Michael, and a daughter, Rhonda. The family did not return telephone calls, and further information about Mr. Ward, including his survivors, could not be confirmed.

In the Inquirer interview, Mr. Ward spoke of the fire as a devastation — but not an unalloyed one.

“In a way, I’m glad it happened,” he said. “The only regret I have is about me being hurt and my mom dying and the other kids. I feel bad for the people who died, but I don’t have any anger toward anybody. See, I got out.”

    Michael Ward, Survivor of ’85 Bombing by Philadelphia Police, Is Dead at 41,
    NYT, 27.9.2013,






At Alabama,

a Renewed Stand for Integration


September 18, 2013
The New York Times


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — For this rendition of Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, there were no National Guard troops or presidential edicts.

But on Wednesday, several hundred University of Alabama students and faculty members invoked Gov. George Wallace’s 1963 attempt to block the enrollment of black students here as they demanded an end to segregation in the university’s fraternities and sororities. Together, the mostly white group marched within sight of the President’s Mansion, one of the only structures on the campus dating to before the Civil War.

Tracey Gholston, a black woman who is pursuing a doctorate in American literature at Alabama, said Mr. Wallace’s legacy continued to permeate the university, which has nearly 35,000 students, about 12 percent of them black, and 45 percent from out of state.

“It shows a thread. It’s not just something that was resolved 50 years ago,” said Ms. Gholston, who has a master’s degree from the university. “You can’t say, ‘We’re integrated. We’re fine.’ We’re not fine.”

The demonstration came one week after the campus newspaper, The Crimson White, published the account of a member of the university’s Alpha Gamma Delta chapter.

The student, Melanie Gotz, said the sorority had bowed to alumnae influence and considered race when it evaluated potential new members earlier this year. Other sorority members shared similar stories.

Racial biases in Alabama’s Greek system, which has a membership of nearly one-quarter of the university’s undergraduate enrollment, have been an open secret for decades.

It is not an issue unique to Alabama, and it is complicated by an era in which blacks and whites on many campuses often gravitate to fraternities and sororities that are segregated in practice, although many national Greek organizations say they have banned discrimination.

Still, many feel systemic discrimination has been tolerated at Alabama, and Ms. Gotz’s public revelations led to widespread demands for reform.

University officials repeatedly had said the responsibility for membership standards rested with the sororities and fraternities, which are private groups. But on Sunday night, the university’s president, Judy L. Bonner, summoned advisers of traditionally white sororities and told them she was ordering an extended admissions process.

And in a videotaped statement released on Tuesday, she acknowledged that the university’s “Greek system remains segregated,” which students and professors described as a historic admission.

But the demonstration, which Dr. Bonner greeted when it arrived at the Rose Administration Building, focused on a sweeping demand for the president and her lieutenants: don’t stop restructuring the campus.

“We are holding the administration accountable and hoping that they hold us accountable, as well, to improve it in a sustained way and not just in a Band-Aid approach,” said Khortlan Patterson, a sophomore. “This was a great success today, but it’s just one step in the process.”

Ms. Patterson, who has considered joining one of the campus’s predominantly black sororities, has plenty of allies. Protesters at the 7:15 a.m. rally included dozens of blue-shirted members of the Mallet Assembly, a residential program founded in 1961 with a history of urging social change at Alabama. (The only black president of Alabama’s student government, elected in 1976, was a member of the organization.)

Since Dr. Bonner’s order, those sororities have opened hurried efforts to bring black women into their ranks by extending bids to an unknown number of minority students. It remains unclear whether any of those women will accept the offers.

The university’s fraternity system, founded in 1847, also remains largely segregated, and people here said they would like to see Alabama broaden its diversity initiative to include those organizations, one of which drew attention in 2009 for staging a parade with its members dressed in Confederate uniforms.

Most Greek organizations have barred their members from speaking to reporters, but Sam Creden, a demonstrator who is also a member of Delta Sigma Phi, said there was some unease about the ferment.

“A lot of my fraternity brothers are actually worried that this will be supporting sort of forced integration,” said Mr. Creden, a junior from Chicago.

Those who marched, he said, are hoping for a deeper, systemic change.

“We don’t want this to be the facade of integration,” Mr. Creden said. “We want people to truly accept people of all backgrounds and races.”

Caroline Bechtel, a member of Phi Mu, said Greeks were largely relieved by the events of recent days.

“The conversations have been happening, but there’s been no real action,” said Ms. Bechtel, a junior.

“Finally, it feels like something might change, and I think that is refreshing. We don’t have to be scared anymore to want a better community.”

    At Alabama, a Renewed Stand for Integration, NYT, 18.9.2013,






Getting Past the Outrage on Race


September 11, 2013
10:00 pm
The New York Times


George Yancy’s recent passionate response in The Stone to Trayvon Martin’s killing — and the equally passionate comments on his response — vividly present the seemingly intractable conflict such cases always evoke. There seems to be a sense in which each side is right, but no way to find common ground on which to move discussion forward. This is because, quite apart from the facts of the case, Trayvon Martin immediately became a symbol for two apparently opposing moral judgments. I will suggest, however, that both these judgments derive from the same underlying injustice — one at the heart of the historic March on Washington 50 years ago and highlighted in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech on that occasion.

Trayvon Martin was, for the black community, a symbol of every young black male, each with vivid memories of averted faces, abrupt street crossings, clicking car locks and insulting police searches. As we move up the socioeconomic scale, the memories extend to attractive job openings that suddenly disappear when a black man applies, to blacks interviewed just to prove that a company tried, and even to a president some still hate for his color. It’s understandable that Trayvon Martin serves as a concrete emblem of the utterly unacceptable abuse, even today, of young black men.

But for others this young black man became a symbol of other disturbing realities; that, for example, those most likely to drop out of school, belong to gangs and commit violent crimes are those who “look like” Trayvon Martin. For them — however mistakenly — his case evokes the disturbing amount of antisocial behavior among young black males.

Trayvon Martin’s killing focused our national discussion because Americans made him a concrete model of opposing moral judgments about the plight of young black men. Is it because of their own lack of values and self-discipline, or to the vicious prejudice against them? Given either of these judgments, many conclude that we need more laws — against discrimination if you are in one camp, and against violent crime if you are in the other — and stronger penalties to solve our racial problems.

There may be some sense to more legislation, but after many years of both “getting tough on crime” and passing civil rights acts, we may be scraping the bottom of the legal barrel. In any case, underlying the partial truths of the two moral pictures, there is a deeper issue. We need to recognize that our continuing problems about race are essentially rooted in a fundamental injustice of our economic system.

This is a point that Martin Luther King Jr. made in his “I Have a Dream” speech, one rightly emphasized by a number of commentators on the anniversary of that speech, including President Obama and Joseph Stiglitz. Dr. King made the point in a striking image at the beginning of his speech. “The Negro is not free,” he said, because he “lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast sea of material prosperity.” In 2011, for 28 percent of African-Americans, the island was still there, the source of both images of Trayvon Martin.

The poverty is not an accident. Our free-enterprise system generates enough wealth to eliminate Dr. King’s island. But we primarily direct the system toward individuals’ freedom to amass personal wealth. Big winners beget big losers, and a result is a socioeconomic underclass deprived of the basic goods necessary for a fulfilling human life: adequate food, housing, health care and education, as well as meaningful and secure employment. (Another Opinionator series, The Great Divide, examines such inequalities in detail each week.)

People should be allowed to pursue their happiness in the competitive market. But it makes no sense to require people to compete in the market for basic goods. Those who lack such goods have little chance of winning them in competition with those who already have them. This is what leads to an underclass exhibiting the antisocial behavior condemned by one picture of young black men and the object of the prejudice condemned by the other picture.

We need to move from outrage over the existence of an underclass to serious policy discussions about economic justice, with the first issue being whether our current capitalist system is inevitably unjust. If it is, is there a feasible way of reforming or even replacing it? If it is not, what methods does it offer for eliminating the injustice?

It is easy — and true — to say that a society as wealthy as ours should be able to keep people from being unhappy because they do not have enough to eat, have no safe place to live, have no access to good education and medical care, or cannot find a job. But this doesn’t tell us how — if at all — to do what needs to be done. My point here is just that saying it can’t be done expresses not realism but despair. Unless we work for this fundamental justice, then we must reconcile ourselves to a society with a permanent underclass, a class that, given our history, will almost surely be racially defined. Then the bitter conflict between the two pictures of this class will never end, because the injustice that creates it will last forever. Dr. King’s island will never disappear, and there will always be another Trayvon Martin.


Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy

at the University of Notre Dame

and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

He is the author of, most recently,

“Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy Since 1960,”

and writes regularly for The Stone.

He was recently interviewed in 3am magazine.

    Getting Past the Outrage on Race, NYT, 11.9.2013,






Profiling Obama


July 28, 2013
The New York Times


FOR much of his public life, Barack Obama has been navigating between people who think he is too black and people who think he is not black enough.

The former group speaks mostly in dog-whistle innuendo and focuses on proxy issues to emphasize Obama’s ostensible otherness: his birth certificate, his supposed adherence to “black liberation theology” (presumably before he converted to Islam), his “Kenyan, anticolonial” worldview. Jonathan Alter’s recent book on Obama’s presidency sums up these notions as symptoms of “Obama Derangement Syndrome” — a disorder whose subtext is more often than not: he’s too black.

On the other side are African-Americans and liberals who are disappointed that Obama has not made it his special mission to call out the racism that still festers in American society and rectify the racial imbalance in our economy, in our schools, in our justice system.

“It has, at times, been painful to watch this particular president’s calibrated, cautious and sometimes callous treatment of his most loyal constituency,” the radio and TV host Tavis Smiley told The Times’s Jodi Kantor last year. That was one of the gentler rebukes from the not-black-enough camp.

Obama believes he best serves the country, and ultimately the interests of black Americans, by being the president of America, not the president of black America. Even when he speaks eloquently on the subject, as he did in his 2008 speech in Philadelphia, he presents himself as a bridge between white and black rather than the civil rights leader-in-chief. And even when his administration has undertaken reforms that address racial injustice — reinvigorating the moribund civil rights division of the Justice Department, for example — he does not call a news conference and make a big deal of it. This is certainly calibrated and cautious. But callous?

Obama’s remarks on the death of Trayvon Martin — “could have been me 35 years ago” — reanimated the old divide. From the he’s-too-black sideline the president was predictably accused of indulging in “racial victimology” and “race baiting.” On the other side, some of those who had yearned for Obama to be more outspoken seized on his riff as a turning point; the president, a Detroit radio host exulted, “showed his brother card.” Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor who has known Obama for 25 years, told NPR he felt like “turning cartwheels” when he heard the remarks, and he declared he would now have to rethink a book-in-the-works, in which he had planned to criticize the president’s timidity on race.

“It seems to me he threw caution to the wind,” Ogletree told me. “It opens up a whole new chapter of Barack Obama.”

Does it? I, too, found Obama’s words moving in their emotional warmth and empathy. But if you go back and read them, now that the heat of the moment has cooled, you will see they are carefully measured and completely consistent with what he has said in his writing and speaking since he entered public life. The warrior against racism that critics on the right deplore and critics on the left demand is nowhere to be found. His comments on the pain and humiliation of racial profiling, which got the most attention, reprise a theme that goes back at least to his days as a state senator. His respectful treatment of the court that acquitted Martin’s killer and his nod to the pathologies of the black underclass got less notice.

“He basically says, try to understand this issue from the perspective of people different from yourself,” said Thomas Sugrue, a University of Pennsylvania historian who has written a book-length study of Obama and race. “And he says it to black folks and white folks.” But somehow listeners on both sides hear what they expect to hear, Sugrue said, on one side “a prophetic Martin Luther King Jr.,” on the other side “a pent-up Black Panther waiting to explode.”

There’s a name for that: racial profiling. People may no longer give Obama suspicious glares in department stores or clutch their purses when he enters an elevator, but they have typecast him according to their own fears and expectations of a black man in the White House. They are still profiling Barack Obama.

Those who hope his Trayvon talk signaled a new presidential activism on race will be watching two litmus tests. The first is whether Obama’s Justice Department will file a civil rights suit against George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch enthusiast who shot Martin dead. The N.A.A.C.P. says more than a million people have signed petitions calling for Justice to prosecute Zimmerman for a hate crime. The second is whether the president will offer a cabinet post to Ray Kelly, the New York police commissioner who has presided over the aggressive stop-and-frisk policing of mostly black and Latino men. Obama’s public praise of Kelly as a possible secretary of homeland security prompted anger and amazement, some of it on this page. Was the president indifferent to Kelly’s role as, in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s words, “the proprietor of the largest local racial profiling operation in the country,” or simply inattentive?

My guess is that the president will navigate those straits as he always has when race looms, carefully and without fanfare. If he is true to form, he will quietly pass over Kelly, because it’s now clear the appointment would become a major distraction from his agenda, because racial profiling is a lifelong personal sore spot for Obama, and because he has other, less polarizing options. He will leave George Zimmerman’s fate to Attorney General Eric Holder, who seems likely to conclude that a hate-crimes case would not stick and would be seen as putting politics over law. (The federal statute says it’s not enough to prove Zimmerman pursued Martin because of his race; the government would have to prove that racial prejudice was his motive for killing the teenager.) In his remarks on the case, Obama seemed to hint that the feds would not step in where the state has already ruled.

So if Obama’s Trayvon moment was not the debut of a new, more activist president, was it at least the beginning of a national conversation about race? If so, I doubt it will be a conversation led by the president. When race came up in an interview published in Sunday’s Times, he promptly segued into a discussion of economic strains on the social fabric.

And that’s O.K. President Obama has an economy to heal, a foreign policy to run, a daunting agenda blockaded by an intransigent opposition. Randall Kennedy, another Harvard law professor who has studied Obama and criticized him for a lack of audacity, says frustration should be tempered by realism. “My view of Obama is as a Jackie Robinson figure,” Kennedy told me. “Jackie Robinson breaks the color barrier and encounters all sorts of denigration, people spitting on him, and because he was a pioneer he had to be above it all. ... People expect Obama now to all of a sudden jump into this totally messy issue of race and the administration of criminal justice? It’s completely implausible. To do it would require a major investment of political capital.”

And, come to think of it, why is that his special responsibility anyway?

“There’s sort of a persistent misperception that talking about race is black folk’s burden,” said Benjamin Jealous, president of the N.A.A.C.P., when I asked him about Obama’s obligation. “Ultimately, only men can end sexism, and only white people can end racism.”

Wouldn’t you like to hear John Boehner or Mitch McConnell or Chris Christie or Rick Perry own up as candidly as the president has to the corrosive vestiges of racism in our society? Now that might be an occasion to turn cartwheels.

    Profiling Obama, NYT, 28.7.2013,






Barack and Trayvon


July 19, 2013
The New York Times


On Friday President Obama picked at America’s racial wound, and it bled a bit.

Despite persistent attempts by some to divest the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman tragedy of its racial resonance, the president refused to allow it.

During a press briefing, Mr. Obama spoke of the case, soberly and deliberately, in an achingly personal tone, saying: “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”

With that statement, an exalted black man found kinship with a buried black boy, the two inextricably linked by inescapable biases, one expressing the pains and peril of living behind the veil of his brown skin while the other no longer could.

With his statements, the president dispensed with the pedantic and made the tragedy personal.

He spoke of his own experiences with subtle biases, hinting at the psychological violence it does to the spirit — being followed around in stores when shopping, hearing the locking of car doors when you approach, noticing the clutching of purses as you enter an elevator.

It is in these subtleties that black folks are forever forced to box with shadows, forever forced to recognize their otherness and their inability to simply blend.

In “The Souls of Black Folk,” W. E. B. Du Bois described this phenomenon thusly:

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Surely, much has changed in America since Du Bois wrote those lines more than a century ago — namely, bias tends to be expressed structurally rather than on an individual level — but the “two-ness” remains. The reality of being marked, denied and diminished for being America’s darker sons persists, even for a man who rose to become one of America’s brightest lights.

And while words are not actions or solutions, giving voice to a people’s pain from The People’s house has power.

On Friday the president reached past one man and one boy and one case in one small Florida town, across centuries of slavery and oppression and discrimination and self-destructive behavior, and sought to place this charged case in a cultural context.

It can be too easy when speaking of race, bias, stereotypes and inequality to arrive at simplistic explanations. There is often a tendency to separate legacy traumas and cultural conditioning from personal responsibility, but it cannot be done. The truth is that racial realities are complicated, weaving all these factors into a single fabric.

There is no denying that an enormous amount of violence — both physical and psychological — is aimed at black men. That violence is both interracial and intraracial. Too many black men inflict that violence on one another, feeding a self-destructive cycle of victimization until hope is crushed to the ground and opportunity seems beyond the sky.

All of this must be considered when we speak of race, and those conversations cannot be a communion of the aggrieved. All parties must acknowledge and accept their role in the problems for us to solve them. Only when the burden of bias is shared — only when we can empathize with the feelings of “the other” — can we move beyond injury to healing.

Yes, we should encourage young black men to value themselves and make better choices that reflect that value.

But we must also acknowledge that poverty is sticky and despair, dogged. The legacy effects of American oppression — which destroyed families, ingrained cultural violence, and denied generations of African-Americans the luxury of accruing and transferring intergenerational wealth — cannot simply be written off.

Most blacks don’t believe that racial prejudice is the whole of black people’s problems today, or is even chief among them. According to a Gallup poll released Friday, only 37 percent of blacks believe that the fact that they, on average, have worse jobs, income and housing is “mostly” because of discrimination.

But it would be hard to argue that bias plays no role, even if it’s immeasurable.

That’s why there was value in the president of the United States acknowledging his “two-ness” on Friday and connecting with Trayvon Martin — because we can never lose sight of the fact that biases and stereotypes and violence are part of a black man’s burden in America, no matter that man’s station.

We could all have been Trayvon.

    Barack and Trayvon, NYT, 19.7.2013,






President Obama’s Anguish


July 19, 2013
The New York Times


President Obama did something Friday that he hardly ever does — and no other president could ever have done. He addressed the racial fault lines in the country by laying bare his personal anguish and experience in an effort to help white Americans understand why African-Americans reacted with frustration and anger to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

Mr. Obama’s comments during a surprise appearance at the White House press briefing crystallized the dissonance around this case. In the narrow confines of the trial, all talk of race was excluded, and the “stand your ground” element in Florida’s self-defense law was not invoked by Mr. Zimmerman’s lawyers. But in the broader, more profound and more troubling context of Mr. Martin’s death, race and Florida’s lax gun laws are inextricably interwoven.

On the first, Mr. Obama said: “The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments.” The jurors, he added, “were properly instructed that in a case such as this reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict.”

But on the broader context, Mr. Obama eloquently rebutted those — like Representative Andy Harris, a Republican, with his dismissive “get over it” remark on Tuesday — who said that the verdict should have ended discussion of the case, especially talk about race and gun laws.

“Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Mr. Obama said, adding that “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.”

He said there are “very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store” or “the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.”

“That,” he said, “includes me.”

Mr. Obama said African-Americans are also acutely aware that “there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.”

He said it would be naïve not to recognize that young African-American men are “disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence.” But using those statistics “to then see sons treated differently causes pain,” he said.

Mr. Obama called on the Justice Department to work with local and state law enforcement to reduce mistrust in the policing system, including ending racial profiling. He also called for an examination of state and local laws to see whether they “are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case.”

Mr. Obama raised questions about the message that “stand your ground” laws send, telling a citizen that he “potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there’s a way for them to exit from a situation.”

Mr. Obama noted that Mr. Zimmerman did not invoke that defense. But he said it was still relevant. In one of the most powerful parts of his remarks, he said: “I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?”

If the answer is “at least ambiguous,” Mr. Obama said, “we might want to examine those kinds of laws.”

Mr. Obama said Americans needed to give African-American boys “the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them.”

He said he was not talking about “some grand, new federal program” or even a national “conversation on race,” which he said often ends up being “stilted and politicized” and reaffirms pre-existing positions.

In a way, Mr. Obama began that conversation with these remarks, while speaking directly to African-Americans who have longed to hear him identify with their frustrations and their anger.

It is a great thing for this country to have a president who could do what Mr. Obama did on Friday. It is sad that we still need him to do it.

    President Obama’s Anguish, NYT, 19.7.2013,






President Offers

a Personal Take on Race in U.S.


July 19, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — After days of angry protests and mounting public pressure, President Obama summoned five of his closest advisers to the Oval Office on Thursday evening. It was time, he told them, for him to speak to the nation about the Trayvon Martin verdict, and he had a pretty good idea what he wanted to say.

For the next 15 minutes, according to a senior aide, Mr. Obama spoke without interruption, laying out his message of why the not-guilty ruling had caused such pain among African-Americans, particularly young black men accustomed to arousing the kind of suspicion that led to the shooting death of Mr. Martin in a gated Florida neighborhood.

On Friday, reading an unusually personal, handwritten statement, Mr. Obama summed up his views with a single line: “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”

That moment punctuated a turbulent week marked by dozens of phone calls to the White House from black leaders, angry protests that lit up the Internet and streets from Baltimore to Los Angeles, and anguished soul-searching by Mr. Obama. Aides say the president closely monitored the public reaction and talked repeatedly about the case with friends and family.

Several people who have had conversations with Mr. Obama’s top aides said a president who has rarely spoken about America’s racial tensions from the White House was particularly torn about appearing to force the hand of Eric H. Holder Jr., the attorney general, when it comes to any investigations in the case.

The White House’s original plan — for Mr. Obama to address the verdict in brief interviews on Tuesday with four Spanish-language television networks — was foiled when none of them asked about it.

Instead, he appeared in the White House briefing room with no advance warning and little of the orchestration that usually accompanies presidential speeches. Mr. Obama spoke for 18 minutes, offering his own reflections and implicitly criticizing gun laws and racial profiling methods — both of which, critics say, played a role in Mr. Martin’s death.

Mr. Obama continued to avoid criticizing either the conduct of the trial or the verdict, in which a jury found a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla., George Zimmerman, not guilty of all charges in the killing of Mr. Martin in February 2012.

But in the most expansive remarks he has made about race since becoming president, Mr. Obama offered three examples of the humiliations borne by young black men in America: being followed while shopping in a department store, hearing the click of car doors locking as they cross a street, or watching as women clutch their purses nervously when they step onto an elevator. The first two experiences, he said, had happened to him.

“Those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida,” Mr. Obama said. “And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.”

For black leaders who had beseeched the president to speak out — inundating White House officials with phone calls — his remarks were greeted with a mixture of relief and satisfaction.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said Mr. Obama had no choice but to confront mounting concern among African-Americans about the Martin case and recent Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action and voting rights.

“At some point, the volcano erupts,” Mr. Jackson said.

From the moment the verdict was announced on Saturday night, black activists had called on Mr. Obama to express the anger and frustration of their community. The pressure only increased after he issued a carefully worded statement urging respect for the jury’s decision.

“We needed this president to use his bully pulpit,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist and host on MSNBC, who urged Mr. Obama’s advisers to have him speak out.

The parents of Mr. Martin, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, said they were “deeply honored and moved” by Mr. Obama’s comments. “President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him,” they said in a statement on Friday. “This is a beautiful tribute to our boy.”

For some black activists, however, Mr. Obama’s remarks were too little, too late. Tavis Smiley, a radio host who has long been a critic of the president, said the president has chosen to “lead from behind” on race issues.

The president’s advisers selected the White House briefing room as the location for Mr. Obama’s remarks during the Thursday meeting, calculating that it would be less formal than a full-dress speech — but would shield him from the questions he would likely face in a longer interview about why he had waited days after the verdict to speak.

The advisers said Mr. Obama was anxious to confront the issue of race in a way that he has not since he ran for president in 2008. In a landmark speech to defuse the political storm over his Chicago pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Mr. Obama spoke about what he called “the complexities of race” in America.

As president, Mr. Obama has only periodically returned to the subject. And on the few occasions that he has, it has often been in reaction to an event — a black Harvard professor’s arrest, or Mr. Martin’s death. A month after Mr. Martin was killed, Mr. Obama said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

The president’s remarks on Friday were different: more expansive, more personal and more reflective of the concerns of fellow blacks. His comments mirror public opinion among African-Americans, according to polls.

A telephone poll conducted June 13 to July 5 by Gallup found that blacks were “significantly less likely now than they were 20 years ago to cite discrimination as the main reason blacks on average have worse jobs, income, and housing than whites.” It found that 37 percent of blacks today blame discrimination. In 1993, 44 percent said the same.

Mr. Obama has also shown more willingness to speak in personal terms. At Morehouse College in Atlanta in May, he told graduates, “Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down.”

His remarks Friday were also reminiscent of the tone in his speeches during his trip to Africa earlier this month. After standing in the cell that Nelson Mandela occupied for 18 years, Mr. Obama told a South African audience, “You’ve shown us how a prisoner can become a president.”

On Friday, Mr. Obama brought that message home, urging Americans to be honest with themselves about how far this country has come in confronting its own racial history.

“Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?” he asked. “Am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.”


Jodi Kantor contributed reporting from Truro, Mass.

    President Offers a Personal Take on Race in U.S., NYT, 19.7.2013,







Obama Speaks of Verdict

Through the Prism

of African-American Experience


July 19, 2013
The New York Times


Following is a transcript of President Obama’s remarks

on race in America in the White House briefing room.

(Transcript courtesy of Federal News Service.)


PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I — I wanted to come out here first of all to tell you that Jay is prepared for all your questions and is — is very much looking forward to the session.

Second thing is I want to let you know that over the next couple of weeks there are going to obviously be a whole range of issues — immigration, economics, et cetera — we’ll try to arrange a fuller press conference to address your questions.

The reason I actually wanted to come out today is not to take questions, but to speak to an issue that obviously has gotten a lot of attention over the course of the last week, the issue of the Trayvon Martin ruling. I gave an — a preliminary statement right after the ruling on Sunday, but watching the debate over the course of the last week I thought it might be useful for me to expand on my thoughts a little bit.

First of all, you know, I — I want to make sure that, once again, I send my thoughts and prayers, as well as Michelle’s, to the family of Trayvon Martin, and to remark on the incredible grace and dignity with which they’ve dealt with the entire situation. I can only imagine what they’re going through, and it’s — it’s remarkable how they’ve handled it.

The second thing I want to say is to reiterate what I said on Sunday, which is there are going to be a lot of arguments about the legal — legal issues in the case. I’ll let all the legal analysts and talking heads address those issues.

The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed that in a — in a case such as this, reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works.

But I did want to just talk a little bit about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling. You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, 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 — that doesn’t go away.

There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.

And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

And you know, 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.

The African-American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.

Now, this isn’t to say that the African-American community is naïve about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.

We understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.

And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And the fact that a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African-American boys are more violent — using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.

I think the African-American community is also not naïve in understanding that statistically somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else.

So — so folks understand the challenges that exist for African-American boys, but they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there’s no context for it or — and that context is being denied. And — and that all contributes, I think, to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.

Now, the question for me at least, and I think, for a lot of folks is, where do we take this? How do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction? You know, I think it’s understandable that there have been demonstrations and vigils and protests, and some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through as long as it remains nonviolent. If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family.

But beyond protests or vigils, the question is, are there some concrete things that we might be able to do? I know that Eric Holder is reviewing what happened down there, but I think it’s important for people to have some clear expectations here. Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government — the criminal code. And law enforcement has traditionally done it at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.

That doesn’t mean, though, that as a nation, we can’t do some things that I think would be productive. So let me just give a couple of specifics that I’m still bouncing around with my staff so we’re not rolling out some five-point plan, but some areas where I think all of us could potentially focus.

Number one, precisely because law enforcement is often determined at the state and local level, I think it’d be productive for the Justice Department — governors, mayors to work with law enforcement about training at the state and local levels in order to reduce the kind of mistrust in the system that sometimes currently exists.

You know, when I was in Illinois I passed racial profiling legislation. And it actually did just two simple things. One, it collected data on traffic stops and the race of the person who was stopped. But the other thing was it resourced us training police departments across the state on how to think about potential racial bias and ways to further professionalize what they were doing.

And initially, the police departments across the state were resistant, but actually they came to recognize that if it was done in a fair, straightforward way, that it would allow them to do their jobs better and communities would have more confidence in them and in turn be more helpful in applying the law. And obviously law enforcement’s got a very tough job.

So that’s one area where I think there are a lot of resources and best practices that could be brought to bear if state and local governments are receptive. And I think a lot of them would be. And — and let’s figure out other ways for us to push out that kind of training.

Along the same lines, I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see if it — if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than defuse potential altercations.

I know that there’s been commentary about the fact that the Stand Your Ground laws in Florida were not used as a defense in the case.

On the other hand, if we’re sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there’s a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we’d like to see?

And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these Stand Your Ground laws, I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?

And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.

Number three — and this is a long-term project: We need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys? And this is something that 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 the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?

You know, I’m not naïve about the prospects of some brand-new federal program.

I’m not sure that that’s what we’re talking about here. But I do recognize that as president, I’ve got some convening power.

And there are a lot of good programs that are being done across the country on this front. And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African-American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that — and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed — you know, I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was obviously a tragic situation. And we’re going to spend some time working on that and thinking about that.

And then finally, I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. You know, there have been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.

On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s a possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can; am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.

And let me just leave you with — with a final thought, that as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. I doesn’t mean that we’re in a postracial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are. They’re better than we were on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.

And so, you know, we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues, and those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions. But we should also have confidence that kids these days I think have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did, and that along this long, difficult journey, you know, we’re becoming a more perfect union — not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.

All right? Thank you, guys.



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    Transcript: Obama Speaks of Verdict
    Through the Prism of African-American Experience, NYT, 19.7.2013,






Bob Teague,

WNBC Reporter

Who Helped Integrate TV News,

Is Dead at 84


March 28, 2013
The New York Times


Bob Teague, who joined WNBC-TV in New York in 1963 as one of the city’s first black television journalists and went on to work as a reporter, anchorman and producer for more than three decades, died on Thursday in New Brunswick, N.J. He was 84.

The cause was T-cell lymphoma, his wife, Jan, said.

Mr. Teague, who lived in Monmouth Junction, N.J., established a reputation for finding smart, topical stories and delivering them in a sophisticated manner. Though he later criticized TV news as superficial and too focused on the appearance of reporters and anchors, his own good looks and modulated voice were believed to have helped his longevity.

Mal Goode became the first black network TV reporter in 1962. He was assigned to the ABC News United Nations bureau because network executives feared his presence in the main studio would be too disruptive, TV Guide reported.

WNBC, the NBC-owned station in New York, hired Mr. Teague, a seasoned newspaper reporter, the next year. As racial tensions mounted in the 1960s, he was often sent into minority neighborhoods. In July 1963, he was a principal correspondent for “Harlem: Test for the North,” an hourlong network program prepared after riots broke out in the neighborhood.

“They felt black reporters would be invulnerable in a riot,” Mr. Teague said in an interview with The Associated Press in 1981. They were not, but he and others proved themselves to be good reporters. He won praise in September 1963 for his first-person report about protesting racial injustice on a picket line.

Just two years after being hired, Mr. Teague was given his own weekly program, “Sunday Afternoon Report.” He also became a frequent replacement on NBC network news and sports programs.

But even as he carved a niche at NBC, including occasional service as anchor, he grew disillusioned with many aspects of the TV news business. In his 1982 book, “Live and Off-Color: News Biz,” he complained that executives’ lust for ratings led them to prefer spectacle over serious news.

“A newscast is not supposed to be just another vehicle for peddling underarm deodorants,” he wrote. “The public needs to know.”

He criticized the major stations’ practice of all scheduling their news programs at the same time of day, saying this meant they all provided the same information. He suggested that each channel present the news in a separate time slot. The slots could then by rotated so all would get access to the most popular times.

Robert Lewis Teague was born in Milwaukee on Jan. 2, 1929, to a mechanic and a maid. He was a star football player at the University of Wisconsin, winning all-Big 10 honors. A journalism major, he passed up offers from four professional football teams to become a reporter for The Milwaukee Journal. He joined the Army in 1952.

In 1956, he moved to New York and found work as a radio news writer for CBS. He soon joined The New York Times as a sports copy editor and went on to cover major sporting events.

He left The Times for the NBC job.

In 1968, he published “Letters to a Black Boy,” written in the form of letters to his 1-year-old son, Adam, many about race. The letters were meant to be read when Adam was 13.

At the time he wrote the book, Mr. Teague’s views were growing more conservative. “Government handouts constitute the most damaging assault on black pride and dignity since the founding of the Ku Klux Klan,” he wrote. He generally supported conservative candidates, including Herman Cain for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. He retired from NBC in 1991.

Mr. Teague’s first marriage, to the dancer Matt Turney, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, the former Jan Grisingher, he is survived by his son and three grandchildren.

The changing public response to Mr. Teague and others in the first wave of black television journalists was suggested in a letter he received that he described in an article in The New York Times Magazine.

“When you first began broadcasting the news on television, I watched you every night, but I realize now, years later, that I was so conscious of the fact that you were black that I didn’t hear a word you said about the news,” it read.

“Now, I am happy to say, I still watch you every night, but only because you are a damn good newscaster.”

    Bob Teague, WNBC Reporter Who Helped Integrate TV News, Is Dead at 84,
    NYT, 28.3.2013,






Racist Incidents Stun Campus

and Halt Classes at Oberlin


March 4, 2013
The New York Times


OBERLIN, Ohio — Oberlin College, known as much for ardent liberalism as for academic excellence, canceled classes on Monday and convened a “day of solidarity” after the latest in a monthlong string of what it called hate-related incidents and vandalism.

At an emotional gathering in the packed 1,200-seat campus chapel, the college president, Marvin Krislov, apologized on behalf of the college to students who felt threatened by the incidents and said classes were canceled for “a different type of educational exercise,” one intended to hold “an honest discussion, even a difficult discussion.”

In the last month, racist, anti-Semitic and antigay messages have been left around campus, a jarring incongruity in a place with the liberal political leanings and traditions of Oberlin, a school of 2,800 students in Ohio, about 30 miles southwest of Cleveland. Guides to colleges routinely list it as among the most progressive, activist and gay-friendly schools in the country.

The incidents included slurs written on Black History Month posters, drawings of swastikas and the message “Whites Only” scrawled above a water fountain. After midnight on Sunday, someone reported seeing a person dressed in a white robe and hood near the Afrikan Heritage House. Mr. Krislov and three deans announced the sighting in a community-wide e-mail early Monday morning.

“From what we have seen we believe these actions are the work of a very small number of cowardly people,” Mr. Krislov told students, declining to give further details because the campus security department and the Oberlin city police are investigating.

A college spokesman, Scott Wargo, said investigators had not determined whether the suspect or suspects were students or from off-campus.

Several students who spoke out at the campuswide meeting criticized the administration, saying it was not doing enough to create a “safe and inclusive” environment and was taking action only when prodded by student activists. But beyond the chapel, many students praised the administration for a decisive response.

“I was pretty shocked it would happen here,” said Sarah Kahl, a 19-year-old freshman from Boston. “It’s a little scary.” She said there was an implied threat behind the incidents. “That’s why this day is so important, so urgent.”

Meredith Gadsby, the chairwoman of the Afrikana Studies department, which hosted a teach-in at midday attended by about 300 students, said, “Many of our students feel very frightened, very insecure.”

One purpose of the teach-in was to make students aware of groups that have formed, some in the past 24 hours in dorms, to respond.

“They’ll be addressing ways to publicly respond to the bias incidents with what I call positive propaganda, and let people know, whoever the culprits are, that they’re being watched, and people are taking care of themselves and each other,” Dr. Gadsby said.

The opinion of many students was that the incidents did not reflect a prevailing bigotry on campus, and may well be the work of someone just trying to stir trouble. “It seems to bark worse than it bites,” said Cooper McDonald, a 19-year-old sophomore from Newton, Mass.

“I can’t see many of my classmates — any of my classmates — doing things like this,” he said. “It doesn’t reflect the town, either.”

He added: “The way the school handled it was awesome. It’s not an angry response, it’s all very positive.”

The report of a person in a costume meant to evoke the Ku Klux Klan added a more threatening element than earlier incidents. The convocation with the president and deans, originally scheduled for Wednesday, was moved overnight, to Monday. “When it was just graffiti people were alarmed and disturbed. But this is much more threatening,” said Mim Halpern, 18, a freshman from Toronto.

There were few details of the sighting, which occurred at 1:30 a.m. on Monday, Mr. Wargo said. The person who reported it was in a car “and came back around and didn’t see the individual again,” he added.

Anne Trubek, an associate professor in the English department, said that in her 15 years at Oberlin there had been earlier bias incidents but none so provocative. “They were relatively minor events that would not be a large hullabaloo elsewhere, but because Oberlin is so attuned to these issues they get addressed very quickly,” she said.

Founded in 1833, Oberlin was one of the first colleges in the nation to educate women and men together, and one of the first to admit black students. Before the Civil War, it was an abolitionist hotbed and an important stop on the Underground Railroad.


Richard Pérez-Peña reported from Oberlin,

and Trip Gabriel from New York.

    Racist Incidents Stun Campus and Halt Classes at Oberlin, NYT, 4.3.3013,





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