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5 reasons we still need a national dialogue on race

President Obama urged a dialogue on race in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, and new reports bolster the case for such a conversation.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

President Obama urged a dialogue on race in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, and new reports bolster the case for such a conversation.

People take part in a march in support of Trayvon Martin’s case in Harlem, New York, July 21, 2013. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Last month, when President Obama unexpectedly took control of the White House press room to share his thoughts on Trayvon Martin and the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, one of the final thoughts that he shared was that the country needed to continue a national dialogue on race.

“I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching,” he said. “There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race.”

And at least five stories this week indicate how much the country could benefit from that dialogue.

Anti-Obama protests turn racist

According to the AZ Republic and NBC’s 12 News Phoenix, protests outside of the high school where Obama spoke Tuesday became “infused” with “racially-charged sentiment” as his supporters and detractors went head-to-head.

His opponents sang, “Bye Bye Black Sheep.” One woman held a sign saying “Impeach the Half-White Muslim!” and a man shouted “He’s 47% Negro.”

Another demonstrator quoted by the paper blamed the president for “racism in America reaching heights not seen since the 1960s Civil-Rights Era.”

“We have gone back so many years,” she told the Republic. “He’s divided all the races. I hate him for that.”

Jackie Robinson statute defaced

On Wednesday, New York Police discovered that a statue of Jackie Robinson had been defaced with a racial slur.

NBC New York reports that the words ”die n—–,” “Hitler,” and “F— Jackie Robinson,” along with a swastika, had been drawn with black marker onto the statue that sits outside Coney Island’s Minor League Baseball Museum, according to the police.

The defacement of the statue, which depicts Robinson and his teammate Pee Wee Reese in a moment of solidarity, drew a surprise visit from New York Senator Chuck Schumer, according to the NY Daily News.

“I hope you’re punished for what you did because what [you] did put a dagger in the heart of what America is all about,” he said, according to the paper.

“That there are still people who don’t understand what Jackie Robinson stood for in his grace, and his strength and the beautiful person he was, and to try and deface him, defame him by defacing this statue is just an act of … it’s beyond words to me,” Schumer added.

Paula Deen tops Dr. King in popularity poll

A poll taken in Georgia finds Republicans prefer Paula Deen to legendary civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

The favorability poll taken by Public Policy Polling found that the celebrity chef, who recently came under fire after admitting to using racial slurs, has an overall 73% favorability rating with Georgia Republicans. King, on the other hand, has just a 59% favorability among self-identified Republicans in Georgia.

Confederate flag in Virginia

In Virginia, a Confederate heritage group announced this week it would use land purchased near Interstate 95 to fly a Confederate flag along the major highway, according to .

“Basically, the flag is being erected as a memorial to the memory and the honor of the Confederate soldiers who sacrificed, bled and died to defend Virginia from invasion,” she said, adding that the flag will show visitors Virginia is a place where everyone is welcome, including “southerners who are proud of our heritage.”

The local chapter of the NAACP blasted the move.

“It would be an embarrassment,” Virginia NAACP Executive Director King Salim Khalfani told the paper.

“It’s going to continue to make Richmond look like a backwater, trailer park, hick town,” he added.

Southern Senator: Obama “exotic” to my constituents

In an interview with , Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin revealed that an unnamed colleague of his once characterized President Obama as “exotic.”

Asked by a reporter why some critics seem determined to see the president fail at all initiatives, Harkin recalled a recent closed door meeting.

“I’m not naming any names, but one senator got up from a southern state and said, ‘Well, you’ve got to understand that to my people down here, Obama seems like’–he thought for a second and he said–‘like he’s exotic,’” he said.

At least three of these examples represent isolated incidents and small groups of extreme people. Georgia Republicans do still see Dr. King favorably, even if Deen’s apology earned her higher remarks, and perhaps the unnamed southern senator Harkin referenced was only speaking on behalf of a small portion of his constituents. None of these incidents ultimately detract from the progress the country has made when it comes to race relations in this country.

Oprah Winfrey made a similar argument earlier this week in her interview with, in which she compared the shooting death of Trayvon Martin to the killing of Emmett Till.

“Trayvon Martin paralleled Emmett Till, let me just tell you. In my mind. Same thing,” she said. ”You can get stuck in that and not allow yourself to move forward and see how far we’ve come.”

“We need to give ourselves a round of applause,” she added later. “In this country, with all of its injustices, look at what we’ve been able to do in the span of one man’s lifetime.”

A new poll shows that many Americans may not be having the conversation in part because they don’t have many friends outside their race with whom to talk. The Reuters/Ipsos poll found about four in ten white Americans and about one in four non-white Americans are “surrounded exclusively by friends of their own race.”

When the question expanded to include a “circle of acquaintances” like coworkers, 30% of all Americans reported they still were not mixing with anyone outside their race.

Perhaps the president may be able to help inspire that conversation later this month.

The White House announced Wednesday that the president will mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington by giving a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. That will place him in the same spot where Dr. King gave his famous “I have a dream…” speech. The president’s remarks are expected to touch on similar issues.

But as he himself said, during those July 19 remarks, politicians are not necessarily the best people to lead the race dialogue.

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 the 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.