07/23/2013 01:21 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2013

Reengaging Race in the Wake of the Trayvon Martin Tragedy

Once again, an American tragedy rooted in race has captured public attention in a way that offers us opportunities for collective reflection about what we might do as a society to come closer to our highest aspirations. The recent acquittal of the individual who killed 17-year-old African American Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida has rekindled a critically important discussion about the precarious situation of young men of color in early 21st century America. As President Obama observed in his unexpected remarks to the White House press corps last Friday, black men and boys do not appear to be benefiting equally from America's generational evolution on race relations. Indeed, many of the circumstances that culminated in the pursuit and killing of Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer seemed to signal the continuing social stigmatization and exclusion of young black men. President Obama did us all a great service by drawing attention to a social context, past and present that has all too often devalued and dehumanized young black men. He also injected important nuance into our halting race conversation by intimating that the continuous messages black men receive about their lesser worth form a critical part of the context for their over-involvement in violent crime - a reality that leads many Americans to dismiss tragedies like the one that befell Trayvon Martin.

If African Americans are the canaries in the coal mine of our democracy, as Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres observed over a decade ago in The Miner's Canary, the situation facing black men and boys demands the most sophisticated scrutiny. No other demographic group better illustrates both the continuing significance of race and its increasing complexity. Their vast over representation in the criminal justice system, and in the ranks of the uneducated and unemployed, are obvious markers of how far we are from being a colorblind opportunity society. At the same time, America recently re-elected a black President, and younger Americans of all races appear more comfortable with diversity and difference than their parents and grandparents.

What these paradoxes highlight are the powerful factors that continue to preserve positive and negative beliefs and stereotypes associated with racial identity - especially black male identity -- in the public mind. And since associations can be made unconsciously in a split second, most Americans never recognize that what may seem to be rational, common sense judgments are more likely influenced by long-running stereotypes about almost any social issue: what we criminalize, whom we most punish, whom we include in our neighborhoods and schools, and what we consider to be culturally acceptable or unacceptable. Thus we take to be coincidental the racial patterns that flow from policies and practices informed by these judgments. One particularly destructive social consequence is that these "coincidental" patterns reconfirm negative racial stereotypes. In other words, they continue to keep a psychology about supposedly essential racial traits and capacities running strongly in the background, even as our nation moves toward colorblind equality in other respects.

Perhaps the most trenchant of the president's observations last Friday related to the psychological effects of Trayvon Martin's death and George Zimmerman's acquittal on young black men. The President was right to point out that consistent negative depiction of young black men over centuries has been an all- too-often-overlooked part of the context for the crime and violence plaguing so many urban communities. How do we convince all young men of color, who from these events gather that their lives and humanity are worth less, that they should strive for individual excellence and not give into self-destructive choices?

Embedded in the President's comments was an important message about what it would take to truly empower young black men. Without acknowledgement and healing of the trauma of devaluation and dehumanization, only the luckiest and most resourceful young black men can hope to avoid the pressures and pitfalls underachievement, unemployment and prison. In his speech, President Obama did a masterful job of explaining this less well recognized, but critical, psychological dynamic that helps to keep race and racism salient in our daily lives today.

Obviously, there are public policies and institutional practices that contribute hugely to familiar racial disparities. We cannot take our eyes off of those structural factors. But the President reminds us that the long-running negative beliefs about blackness are invisible but extremely powerful forces that drive the context surrounding those structures that need to be intentionally targeted for change as well. This rare opportunity presented by a president's thoughtful reflections on race through the lens of his own experiences must not be wasted.

Keith Lawrence and Gretchen Susi are the Co-Directors of the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change. The Roundtable on Community Change distills lessons about how to revitalize distressed neighborhoods, and helps policymakers, funders and practitioners develop effective strategies for promoting vibrant, racially-equitable communities.