President Obama took a few minutes to address and explain the effects of the Zimmerman verdict from the African American perspective. There’s a well known proverb, “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes” which dates back to the Cherokee tribe of Native Americans. Many remember hearing this for the first time when Nelle Harper Lee, an American author, was seemingly inspired by the saying of the Cherokee tribe of Native Americans in her book “To Kill a Mockingbird”, where she wrote,“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” This mention brought the saying to a wider public and increased its popularity distinctly.
This in turn means it’s important to be empathetic when dealing with others. Being able to empathize means to be capable of identifying and understanding another person’s feelings; without actually experiencing them at that particular moment. It is the ability to literally experience the world from another person’s perspective; to walk in their shoes, to view life from their living conditions and to feel what it feels like to be that person.
It brings reason that it becomes complicated at times to understand what a person is undergoing, if you haven’t undergone it for yourself – or at least felt similar feelings. The outcome of this can be seen in our day-to-day lives; it’s relatively easy to look down on someone who is not as intelligent as you feel you are, or to criticize the unemployed man when you have never been unemployed in your life, or grown up in riches. But once you experience for yourself what it feels like to be teased about your own insecurities, your point of view might change drastically and also how you feel about those who are facing a similar situation.
Obama attempted to explain how empathy works by describing what it’s like to be an African American in the USA. He begins by saying, “The reason I actually wanted to come out today is not to take questions, but to speak to an issue that obviously has gotten a lot of attention over the course of the last week — the issue of the Trayvon Martin ruling. I gave a preliminary statement right after the ruling on Sunday. But watching the debate over the course of the last week, I thought it might be useful for me to expand on my thoughts a little bit.”
The president felt it was important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t just go away. I’ll note portions of these experiences from his point of view here.
“There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear. The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.
Now, this isn’t to say that the African American community is naïve about the fact that African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system; that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact — although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context. They understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.
And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And the fact that a lot of African American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well; there are these statistics out there that show that African American boys are more violent — using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.
I think the African American community is also not naïve in understanding that, statistically, somebody like Trayvon Martin was statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else. So folks understand the challenges that exist for African American boys. But they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there’s no context for it and that context is being denied. And that all contributes I think to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.”
President Obama also shared some of the initiatives that were implemented during his tenure as a senator and how effective they were. He also acknowledged the many demonstrations, vigils and protests that have taken place thus far and admitted that some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through, as long as it remains nonviolent.
He brings his speech to a close by saying that it’s important for all of us to do some soul-searching 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”.
He leaves one final thought by saying, “as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn’t mean we’re in a post-racial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. And so we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues. And those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature, as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions. But we should also have confidence that kids these days, I think, have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did; and that along this long, difficult journey, we’re becoming a more perfect union — not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.”
In other words, when we meet a person for the first time, we immediately put them into boxes, subconsciously, if we want it or not. The first impressions can have a long lasting effect on what we think about a person – until we really get to know them better. Often times, we don’t even think much about this process happening and allow our “intuition” guide us when forming an opinion about others. It is important that you realize that this is a natural process unfolding that unfortunately creates a lot of biases. In order to empathize with others, it’s vital to set aside personal biases and generalizations, in order to see behind the façade. This is the only way to live out this ancient, but wise, saying, “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.”
Thank you, President Obama, for taking the time to address and explain the feelings of the African American Community while enlightening us all on the power of empathy. It is the truth that racial profiling effects ALL Americans and if people are honest they would have to admit that all have been guilty of it at some point in their lives.
By: Cherese Jackson (Virginia)