President Barack Obama surprised the nation on July 19 with an impromptu press conference in the aftermath of the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman, a self-proclaimed volunteer community watchman who was eventually arrested and charged weeks after admitting to shooting and killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The unarmed black teenager was walking home from a nearby store on a rainy evening in Sanford, Fla., when he was followed and approached by Zimmerman.
Although public scrutiny is focused on Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground law, Zimmerman's freedom didn't come by invoking "Stand Your Ground," a statute that justifies killing in self-defense. Rather, Zimmerman was returned to society a free man because the jury was convinced that what he did was completely acceptable in America today. Most white Americans agreed. A recent Washington Post-ABC poll revealed a majority of white Americans (51 percent) believe Zimmerman's acquittal was justified.
Zimmerman isn't white. He's Hispanic. But the backlash isn't about Zimmerman's race. It's related to the sentiment expressed by the all-white female jury and the majority of white respondents in the aforementioned poll, which testifies to a pervasive irrational fear of young black males, which remains part of the residue from America's ugly history of hostility toward black males. The shared experiences of millions of black men and boys in America today provide further proof that far too many in this nation haven't moved beyond the archaic notion that a black man walking along a street after sundown is presumably, by itself, a legitimately suspicious act. Polls show a majority of white males agree with Zimmerman's suspicions. Beyond that, 54 percent of white Americans also believe minorities are treated equally and fairly in America today.
Government Gone Too Far?
Ironically, that poll result is reminiscent of the 1973 Quayle Poll, in which 65 percent of white respondents in Illinois believed the government had "gone far enough" or "gone too far" in helping black Americans overcome generations of legally sanctioned societal barriers and open hostility. Similarly, in 2010, members of the upstart conservative movement, Tea Party, were polled and displayed alignment with Illinois conservatives from a previous generation. Seventy-three percent agreed with the statement, "Blacks would be as well off as Whites if they tried harder."
Killing the American Dream
Imagine that. A mere five years after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, conservative (and liberal) white Americans were satisfied the government had fully met whatever presumed obligation they were willing to tolerate in helping black Americans. Nearly four decades later that sentiment remains deeply entrenched in the psyche of many conservative white Americans.
The same unbroken historic narrative surfaced again in the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial. Ironically, the prominent perspective held in the private sector (thanks, Mitt Romney) was reflected in the results of the latest polling, which revealed a stereotypical sentiment coursing through the veins of much of the investment class. The notion that nearly half of the nation (47 percent, according to Romney) is lazy and dependent upon government dovetails with beliefs of previous generations that proclaimed government had done more than enough, and blacks would be as well off as whites if only they would try hard enough.
That consistent history underscores why I am so proud of the leadership exhibited by our president. The irrational fear and stereotyped branding ascribed to black males in America, emphasized by the jury's dismissal of all optional charges against Zimmerman, wasn't lost on him. And instead of letting the nation devolve into inane partisan bickering with racial undertones, Obama established a platform of personal revelation and empathetic understanding, set a legacy agenda for sustained national discourse and reminded us of his own capacity to convene around the issue of fearing black boys and men, which seems to permeate every nook and cranny of our society. Even the president hasn't been immune to the racist undercurrent that flows unabated beneath the surface of a presumed post-racial America.
The main point is: President Obama has established the best possible dialogue, policy and action platform to determine the way forward for our nation.
"You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son," President Obama said. "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 doesn't go away."
America21: Doing the Work
Mr. President, I salute you. In modern times, there has not been a more powerfully positioned black man on Earth than you. Please continue standing your ground to ensure the nation doesn't set aside the important questions (which have raged for generations) around the issues of privilege, fear, access and opportunity.
I promise that I, along with my colleagues at The America21 Project and Saving America's Black Boys National Campaign, will stand with you and continue working diligently to follow through on your suggestion of gathering leaders and influencers to find positive ways of developing collaborative paths toward productivity and prosperity for African American boys (and girls) in a nation where they still face contempt deeply embedded in large pockets of the population.
We heard you, Mr. President. And we're prepared to scale up our ongoing efforts to meet your declarations: "But beyond protests or vigils, the question is, are there some concrete things that we might be able to do."
Yes. We have invested in deployment of a new narrative, new vision and new approaches for about three years. "... 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."
My Saving America's Black Boys National Campaign, launched at SXSWedu earlier this year is a great platform for convening leaders and influencers to facilitate ongoing dialogue that leads to policy changes and strategic deployment investments in new infrastructure and pipelines to productivity and prosperity across the nation.
"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?"
Yes. African American males have a long history of innovation and creating significant value that have contributed to multitrillion-dollar industries. The establishment of a National Institute for Minority Innovation and Competitiveness (NIMIC) would provide the research, data, academic rigor, new competitive intelligence indices and other measurement tools that help make the case for national investment in scaling up the hidden talent pool that flourishes in America's economic blind spot.
"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 they've got pathways and avenues to succeed -- 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."
Saving America's Black Boys
Mr. President, we've got your back. Thank you for acknowledging this work is important and should be supported nationwide. We're already engaged in convening stakeholders and advancing the narrative you've declared is important.
You're invited, along with the first lady, your daughters and entire administration, to gather with us at the Puget Sound Region Economic Solutions Summit on Aug. 16 in Tacoma, Washington, when I and my colleague Johnathan Holifield, visionary architect of Inclusive Competitiveness, will lead a discussion with business leaders, educators, entrepreneurs, policymakers, community activists, parents and students in addressing unique economic solutions that can, as part of an overall economic toolkit, lead to development of a pipeline to productivity and prosperity for America's Black Boys.
I've long focused my attention on moving the divisive debate toward a solutions-oriented discourse, which I believe should be built upon a firm foundation of education, especially STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math), job- and wealth-creating, high-growth entrepreneurship, equal and equitable access to investment capital and innovative policymaking.
My colleagues and co-founders at America21 have codified an inclusive economic framework and enveloped it within an overall vision of Inclusive Competitiveness that will, when packaged with other economic tools, help strengthen the global competitiveness of America.
Of course, the work we and others do requires a base of support. And there's no more powerful base than the declarative power of a president committed to a cause -- a cause whose time has certainly come. Thank you for your leadership. Thank you for standing your ground and establishing a firm foundation for the work we do.