07/30/2013 10:49 am ET Updated Sep 29, 2013

The State of Black Men From an American President

The reactions to the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman verdict reveal a great deal of information about this society's misguided beliefs on race and the willingness of its people to remain steadfast and dogmatically defend their beliefs, despite statistical evidence contrary to their views. President Obama's seemingly off-script remarks on the state of U.S. race relations confirmed what every black man already knew, yet what many whites have been seemingly unaware of (and unmoved by), which are the harsh realities of living in a black body and enduring white-on-black discrimination. For the first time in history, a U.S. president, a man of color, was able to speak personally about his own encounters with race-based mistreatment. In a near-20-minute address, he acknowledged to the American people the pain of institutional racism and provided further insights into some of the historical aspects of the racial framing of African American men by white elite decision makers who regarded them as direct threats to white male masculinity during slavery times. As a result of these racial fears, contemporary white Americans inherited a fundamentally flawed and racist society, governed by a two-tier system that began on grossly unequal footing. An institution founded on stolen African labor and Native American land theft, white-on-black racism included domestic forms of terrorism, which relied on fear, intimidation, and violence as a means of social control to maintain that brutal system and justify its existence through white-imposed oppression in our past.

Americans tend to rationalize white racism as an individual occurrence (severely underestimating its relevance) rather than a system of profound oppression involving 246 years of slavery and 90 years of Jim Crow resulting in roughly 85 percent of our existence as a young nation. Few too many Americans understand that racism is a systemic phenomenon deeply rooted in every aspect of the American experience, which has a corrosive effect on the minds, bodies, and souls of most Americans. Even today, this racist legacy is evident. Whether in the form of higher frequencies of school discipline and expulsion, underachievement in higher education, health care disparities, poverty, homicide, unemployment, or the disproportionate involvement in the criminal justice system, black males are unjustly harassed. The president's view, although unpopular in the eyes of many of his white conservatives colleagues, reminded the American people that racism is not a relic of our 400-year-old violent past, but instead, represents reality for substantial numbers of African Americans who are understandably frustrated and disillusioned.

The president's right-winged critics, who are overwhelmingly white, have accused him of "race-baiting," yet offer up no real solutions other than a colorblind perspective on racial matters. The same group that denies the existence of racism in this country, turning a "color-blind" eye, is the same group with power and privilege who are least familiar with the overall structure of white supremacy and persistence of black marginalization. Many white Americans suffer from alexithymia, or the inability to hear or feel the depths of emotional despair and pain that scores of black Americans feel over the Zimmerman verdict. This verdict, in their minds, represented yet another clear example of "justice denied." Today, black men continually confront a host of disparities compared to their white counterparts that disproportionately stigmatizes and affects the quality of life.

When white Americans remain aloof, neglecting to acknowledge matters of race, and worse, partake in race-related slights, insults and other dehumanizing behaviors directed at stigmatized groups, the cumulative affect can undermine black confidence creating distrust thus having a pernicious effect on self-concept and feelings of shame and inadequacy. Ignoring the perceived experiences and lived realities of subaltern peoples and seeing them as less competent than their white counterparts has been shown to result in a higher probability of mental health decline among Black Americans. We cannot begin to undo this negative racist past until we forthrightly address the problem of racial inequity and root it out from our core. As President Obama stated, we need to show our young black boys that we love them, particularly in our emotionally fragile society.