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Race, Politics And The Trayvon Martin Case


Joining me now is Corey Dade. He's a national correspondent for NPR digital news. He's been writing a lot about the Trayvon Martin case, and he's also interviewed Trayvon's parents. Also with us is legal scholar and attorney Michelle Alexander who recently published a book called "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness." Corey, welcome to the program.

COREY DADE, BYLINE: Thank you, Guy.

RAZ: And, Michelle Alexander, welcome to the program.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Thanks for having me.

RAZ: Is Trayvon - the Trayvon Martin case going to become a movement? First to you, Corey Dade.

DADE: As soon as this hit, people immediately said, African-Americans in particular, this is the Emmett Till case of our generation. From there, as far as a movement goes, it has to do with whether or not the family or another group can take this national support and actually turn it into an organizational structure. And at this point, pretty quickly, the family and their attorneys have started to do that.

They've hired a marketing firm. They're forming a nonprofit. The mother of Trayvon, she has actually filed for trademark protection for two of the slogans that are driving this. One slogan is Justice for Trayvon and the other is I am Trayvon Martin.

RAZ: She's trademarked it. Some people have criticized that, saying it's cynical commercialism, but others have said, well, this is a way for her to control the message of the movement.

DADE: Exactly. This is sort of a civil rights movement in the digital age.

RAZ: Michelle Alexander, you famously, in your book, write that there are more African-Americans under correctional control today, either imprisoned or on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850. When you deliver that line, people gasp. They cannot believe that number, it's so shocking. But you have also drawn comparisons between that prison system, what you call the new Jim Crow, and the Trayvon Martin case. Can you explain that?

ALEXANDER: Yes. Well, you know, I think one of the reasons that Trayvon Martin's tragic death has resonated so powerfully with millions of people is because it's one of those rare situations in this so-called era of colorblindness, a time when we have been so seduced by the appearance of great racial progress through the election of Barack Obama and the sprinkling of people of color through elite institutions, thanks to affirmative action, when suddenly the emperor has no clothes.

And what we see is that all of the usual rationalizations and justifications for treating young black men as potential suspects are stripped away and all you have is a young teenager on the phone with his girlfriend, carrying a bag of Skittles and iced tea, and he is viewed as someone who needs to be dealt with harshly. And this notion, this idea, that black men in particular need to be controlled is the core idea that sustains this system of mass incarceration.

RAZ: One of the things that was interesting to me about, as the Trayvon case became more and more prominent, was how few non-African-Americans seem to understand the kind of the daily obstacles ordinary African-American males go through. Corey, you grew up here in D.C.

DADE: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: Did either of your parents ever say don't do this, don't do that, don't do that?

DADE: Absolutely. It's called the talk informally. It's the rite of passage that most black males go through. And the talk goes something like this: At the end of the day, many people perceive you not only just as a black man but as a suspect, as someone to be watched, feared, questioned.

And as a result, these are several things that you need to keep in mind. Like never leave a store without a shopping bag for fear of being suspected as having shoplifted. Never loiter out in the street or on a corner anywhere. Never argue with police. These kinds of things were drummed into many young black men as they started to gain more freedom, giving them a set of guidelines about how to protect themselves. The idea is to do that - and my parents did this too - do that without instilling any kind of inferiority complex or a sense of paranoia.

RAZ: 1955, of course, is very different from 2012. I mean - and a lot of people will say we have, of course, an African-American president and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and top executives in academics. And, of course, there are laws that exist to protect equal rights. There's no question that much, much more work has to be done.

But if you were to take the Trayvon Martin case as a symbol and transform it into a movement - in 1955, it was clear. I mean, you had to overturn unjust laws, laws that were racially biased. What would the movement do now? Corey, first to you, Corey Dade.

DADE: Well, a movement would have to have a clear purpose. And if we're talking about the Trayvon Martin case at this point, the only purpose that the family and the lawyers have identified is a conviction for the gunman, George Zimmerman.

RAZ: Yes.

DADE: There's still an open question out there about what they're going to do with this enormous reservoir of goodwill. And I think considering that the people sort of closest to the family are lawyers, it's going to focus more on inequities in the criminal justice system, disparities in sentencing. And the Stand Your Ground law - for example, the National Bar Association, which represents African-American - it's a trade group for African-American judges and lawyers - is looking at the Stand Your Ground law, not only in Florida, but in all the 25 other states, and they are looking at ways to attack sort of the way that law is applied.

RAZ: Hmm. Michelle Alexander, I mean, if there was a mass movement that was organized and that came out of it, where would you like to see that movement focusing its attention?

ALEXANDER: I would love to see the Trayvon Martin tragedy help to birth and fuel a movement to end mass incarceration, a human rights movement for education, not incarceration, for jobs, not jails, a movement ought to inspire people, to view a young kid like Trayvon Martin even in his hoodie as a young kid who might well be president of the United States one day rather than someone who looks like he might be on drugs or up to no good.

RAZ: How important would it be for such a movement to be a multiracial movement, Corey?

DADE: Well, I think there's strength in numbers. I think the civil rights movement, one of its successes was that they were able to get innumerable numbers of whites involved and young people. And so once that movement went outside the southern black community in particular, that movement was able to have that much more strength. Today, it would have to be much the same thing.

I think there is a natural coalition to be formed with Latinos, not just for political power and political empowerment, but also for economic issues and certainly law enforcement issues in these kinds of inequities. And I think also it has to be economic. It has to show the commonalities between working-class African-Americans, working-class Hispanics and working-class whites.

RAZ: That's NPR's Corey Dade. He's a national correspondent for digital news and has been writing a lot about the Trayvon Martin case. Corey, thank you so much.

DADE: Thank you, Guy.

RAZ: Also thanks to legal scholar and attorney Michelle Alexander. She's the author of "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness." Michelle, it's great having you.

ALEXANDER: Thank you again for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.