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Author: Obama's Personal Take On Race Made Impact


Another American who listened intently to President Obama's remarks Friday was linguist and commentator John McWhorter. He's written several books about race in America, including "Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority." McWhorter says Mr. Obama's emphasis on the police and criminal justice hit an essential problem of black inequality in America.

JOHN MCWHORTER: Roughly every two years, there is some unarmed black teenager or 20-something who is innocent and yet killed under ambiguous, mysterious circumstances by some white person, usually a person in authority. That is what keeps us from really getting past race in this country. And so I'm happy that the president actually made a sustained statement about it because it can help make this Trayvon Martin case something that will galvanize real movement on this really poisonous issue in American life.

MARTIN: This is an American president sharing a very particular personal experience with the country, quoting: "There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping at a department store. That includes me." What was the effect of that?

MCWHORTER: Well, I think that that personal stance that he put on the speech has had a major effect on the way people received it. Now, if you ask me, that personal stamp isn't exactly new from him. He wrote a best-selling autobiography. He often prefaces his statements, as he did this time, with things about, quote, unquote, "Michelle and I," and his daughters. We've heard it before. But I think in this case it particularly mattered that he mentioned a personal experience with something that I think it's really quite easy to miss if you're not a black man or somebody who knows a black man well.

MARTIN: What did you think about the president's prescriptions? I mean, he talked a lot about individual soul searching, that there can't be some federal program; these have to be conversations that happen organically at dinner tables, in families, at schools?

MCWHORTER: I think that the president got it half right in terms of prescriptions. I frankly have lost a lot of my earlier interest in the idea that programs bolstering self-esteem for young black boys are going to do much of the trick simply because I don't see how it's made a real difference. And that's not to minimize the many, many people around the country who are giving their lives to making efforts like that work. However, I think that when Obama talked about changing the Stand Your Ground-style policies on guns, clearly we need this, because it won't do for there to be a situation where a black man might encounter somebody who is trying to wield authority over him in an inappropriate way and the guy resists in a way that is probably appropriate too and gets killed for it? There shouldn't be any possibility. And then, Barack Obama's idea also that we think about our profiling policies in general, that is absolutely key, frankly. The situation that we have with Stop and Frisk in New York City, I couldn't think of a better way to turn one generation after another of brown and black boys against the country that they live in. And I'm convinced that if we could have one generation of young brown men who didn't grow up feeling that way about law enforcement, we really would be in a different country. And if it took something as hideous as what happened to that boy in Florida to make more people think about this than the black community and a few white fellow travelers, then I think ultimately something good has happened.

MARTIN: John McWhorter. He joined us from his home in Jersey City, New Jersey. He teaches at Columbia University. Thank you so much, Mr. McWhorter.

MCWHORTER: Thank you. Thank you very much.


MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.