The death of Trayvon Martin spurred new conversations about race in America. It was also a turning point for The Race Project, where NPR's Michele Norris collects six-word reflections on race, culture and identity. Norris discusses the poignant conversations she's had since Martin's death.
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NEAL CONAN, HOST:
And joining us now is Michele Norris, NPR host and special correspondent. She runs The Race Card Project where she collects six word stories about race, culture and identity. A year ago, the death of Trayvon Martin was a turning point for the project as more and more people realize they wanted to talk in public about a subject we all sometimes shy away from. We want to hear your six words. How did this then change your thinking about race or about your community? You can send us an email: email@example.com. You can send us your six words via Twitter. You can find us @TOTN. Or give us a phone call, 800-989-8255. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org. I just say that (unintelligible) . I don't even think about it. Michele Norris, I don't think we've had you back since you've been back.
MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: No. It's good to be back with you, Neal.
CONAN: And I understand you started hearing about this event in Sanford, Florida before it was being reported in the media.
NORRIS: Well, you know, it happened in February but it took a good week to 10 days before it really blew up into a national story. But early on, the Race Card Project sometimes can be a window into or a mirror of society and we started to see submissions fairly early with people talking about this case down in Florida and this kid who was killed while he was walking home from the store with Skittles and iced tea. And then once it became a national story, the inbox just exploded, as you said, with people deciding that they really needed to process this, to talk about his and looking for a public forum, a public space where they could have that conversation.
CONAN: And what do you think about this case prompted so much reaction?
NORRIS: It hit people in a really personal way. So people, perhaps, thought that could have been my son, as the president said. That could've been a member of my family. That could have been me. It caused some people to really think about where we were in society because there was a lot of talk about America sliding into sort of a post-racial status where we wouldn't have to talk about race or think about race in the same way, and this pulled a lot of people up. Whoa. Race really is perhaps still on the table, and - because it was a kid. He was 17 years old. So I think that that spoke to people in a very particular way.
CONAN: I wonder, did your input change as George Zimmerman's story started to come out?
NORRIS: Yes, it did. There were a lot of people. You know, a lot of them in the Race Card Project, people talk about their own personal experiences. This is a little bit larger. People were talking about their personal experiences but through the prism of what happened there in Florida. And there were - a lot of people would talk about adjudication, you know, and whether this case was being handled in a fair way because it took quite a long time before murder charges were actually filed. I mean it was until April, mid-April, before those charges were filed. So a lot of people talked about that but there was this other interesting aspect of this is George Zimmerman's identity was sort of fuzzy in the way it was described. He was described as a man who was white, he was described as a man who was Latino, and he was described as a man who was Latino but identified largely with white culture. There were lots of different ways that people were describing him and people responded to that also. There was this sort of roiling debate about whether or not that should make a difference and some people thought it really did make a difference in how he was identified and described.
CONAN: Can you give us some examples of some of the early responses you got and how they have changed.
NORRIS: One of the things that really struck me, Neal, was how honest people were in dealing with fear, and their own fears and the assumptions that they make when they talk about fear. There were a number of people who talked about - they were not in any way saying that they identify or condoned what George Zimmerman did but they were really honest about their own fears. There was a woman named Joanna(ph) - actually, a woman named Allison(ph) who said mugged by black teens, trust destroyed. And she said she wrestles with this all the time. There was another woman who said that she's - she said angry black men are so scary. Another woman has said - who said, embarrassed to say, afraid of black teens. And she said that she smiled at some teens and wound up getting mugged. I thought that was astonishing, that people would express those kinds of fears in a public space and then attach their names to it.
And a lot of people talked about, as we said, about the sort of visceral reaction that, oh, my goodness, this could have been a member of my family. I think about my son, my husband, my nephew, my grandson in a different way every time they walk out the door, especially if they happen to be wearing the fashion of the day, which often is a great, big hoodie.
CONAN: Yeah, yeah. We want to encourage you to come and tell us your six-word reaction to what you've been thinking over the past year, how your thinking has changed over the past year since the death of Trayvon Martin. It seems amazing that a year has gone by. 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com, @totn if you're on Twitter. Let's start with a call from Mark, and Mark's with us from New Hartford, in New York.
MARK: Yes, sir.
CONAN: Hi. What are your six words?
MARK: Well, my six words were that the stand your ground laws are valid. They may not be specifically in this case, because there's so much that's unknown about it. And I certainly do, you know, feel for the mother of Trayvon Martin. But the situation, as it has been portrayed by the media, it leaves a lot of questions out there. And I do still believe that the stand your ground laws are a valid alternative to violence.
CONAN: That's a lot more than six words. We're trying to get people to be concise, but I understand your opinion, Mark. And that's clearly been reflected in some of the answers you've received, Michele.
NORRIS: Yeah. There were several that came in. I was actually counting as he was talking, and it was more than six words. But there were others who expressed a similar...
CONAN: I only have 10 fingers.
NORRIS: Yeah - a similar sentiment within six words. Some people did say stand your ground laws are justified. A lot of that did come in. There's one thing that is clear, that many people probably didn't know much about the stand your ground laws that are on the books in Florida and in several other states. And they really were placed under a very hot microscope, and are still being examined and adjudicated and litigated and perhaps even legislated going forward, largely because of this case.
CONAN: Here are some emails that we've received. This is from Daniel: I need a gun for protection.
NORRIS: Hmm. Now, you know, as with many of the six words, six words often isn't enough, because you need to know more about that story. I wonder what Daniel's circumstances are and why he feels he needs a gun for protection, and protection from what? You know, because in this case, there were two people who encountered each other who both felt clearly afraid of the other person.
CONAN: I am more than my color, from Robbie in Brentwood, Tennessee.
NORRIS: Another common sentiment that, you know, people ignore the book, read the cover. I am more than my packaging. You know, a lot of people saying that race is important, but it shouldn't be all that they are, or the only way that they're viewed.
CONAN: This is an interesting one from Bruce in Oldsmar, Florida: Trayvon will all but be forgotten.
NORRIS: Well, you know, the gentleman who lives in Oldsmar obviously believes that because he put down those six words. A year from this, you know, on this unfortunate anniversary, it's clear he hasn't been forgotten. And I think this story will likely be with us, you know, for some time. The hearing is an April. Jury selection will begin in mid-June.
CONAN: If the case survives.
NORRIS: If the case survives. And this is a story that I think did have such a large mark, that it's not likely to fade away quickly, and in an interesting ways, also, because of the way the conversation percolated around this story - not just in the news media, but because of the social media dimension of it. And it's, you know, it's in the history books.
I mean, the president stood in the Rose Garden at a ceremony that had nothing to do with this case in Florida and decided to make a comment about that, you know, and explaining that if he had a child, he would look like Trayvon Martin, and I think going on to say that the family could rightfully expect that this case should merit attention to figure out what exactly happened on that street.
CONAN: Let's go to - this is Ted, Ted on the line with us from Little Rock.
TED: Yes. I was - my six words, happened upon by luck: loss of hope for this country. And my thoughts along those lines is because, you know, a total disregard for the fact that this black youth has wound up walking home and wound up being killed. If we were in a predominant white neighborhood, we would think that that was an atrocity. But we have people defending that fact. And I'm not necessarily saying that all was wrong about what happened.
I mean, I'm sure that mistakes can be made. But one of the things that we've cast is in race - racial terms, because they're different races. But in my opinion, it really doesn't have to get to that. The real issue is, is that the question seems to me to be: Why did the guy ever get out the truck when he was told never to get out of the truck? He wasn't a policeman. He did not have the ability to patrol this place other than the, you know, having been blessed by the neighborhood. But he certainly wasn't blessed to use a gun.
And so all of this issue about race certainly is racial because of how it's going to turn out. I don't think if we were - if the races were reversed, that we would have such a question as to whether or not this guy is going to get off. The bottom line is, in my opinion, he shouldn't have gotten out of the truck. And once he got out of the truck, whatever happened, he was responsible for, and he was wrong.
CONAN: We'll have to see how the court makes its decision on that question. But this -the facts of this case remain in deep dispute, Michele.
NORRIS: And race is but one issue, and not an issue that will be, you know, handled in the courts in the way that was certainly handled and discussed in the media. But, you know, as the caller notes that this is a case that was also about the use of firearms. It was a case that was - that touched on curfews, on school suspensions, on, you know, whether Trayvon would have been in the school if he hadn't been sent home because of an issue that he had. Some, you know, focused on that, as well.
But the racial dimension is, though, I think, if we're speaking honestly, one of the things that did add heat to this discussion, and did make it, you know, the national story that it was and kept it on the front page, as it kept roiling on the front pages again one year later.
CONAN: Ted, thank you very much.
CONAN: We're talking with Michele Martin. Among her other duties, she runs The Race Card Project. We're talking about in six words, how your thinking has been changed in the past year. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
Here's an email from Charlie, I think, in response to our first caller: Stand your ground is Wild West.
NORRIS: Well, I think he's probably referring there to the period in the Wild West where there were no laws, where you - if you carried a gun and you had a beef with someone, you would often - or where there were laws, they were sort of gently followed. But there are laws on the books now, and the Stand Your Ground law is on the books in Florida. And that's one of the questions outside of the - I guess, the trial in the Trayvon Martin case, is the question of whether it deserves to be there.
And there are a lot of people in Florida - I mean, it should be said, there are people of color in Florida who also support the stand your ground laws. They may be in the minority, but they are there, also, because we've heard from them through this project.
CONAN: Here's some tweets, this from preachermanwade: Stand your ground, not your fears.
A tweet from Yusef(ph), or Joseph: Race is inconsequential. Humans should love.
And a tweet from TailKinker42: Being white doesn't make me racist. And there is the sense of, yes, there's profiling here in the initial description of Trayvon Martin, but there's profiling - some people feel - the other way, too.
NORRIS: Yeah. And, you know, a lot of people - I mentioned people who actually support the stand your ground laws. I mean, some of them say that they support these laws because they're concerned about home invasions. They're concerned about the protection of their property and of their loved ones. And they feel that if they support the stand your ground laws, that they are automatically viewed as being in the opposite camp of a grieving family, and that they are very swiftly and (unintelligible) painted with a racist label that doesn't feel, you know, obviously doesn't feel good to them. And they'd like to make that distinction.
CONAN: Here's an email from Melody in Jacksonville: I wished I had reacted differently.
NORRIS: Again, Neal, isn't that one of those six words that just has - not just a question mark, but a trail behind it? Because you want to reach out to Natalie and say, please, tell us more about...
NORRIS: Or, excuse me, Melody - and say, please, tell us more about that circumstance. What is it that you wish you would have done differently? But don't, you know, don't we all - I mean, if we're honest about this, don't we all have encounters in our life where you wish - you sort of reorder your steps and think: I might have done something differently. I might have said something differently. I mean, we're talking about a very tragic case.
But in sort of the realm of people's lives - particularly in matters where we're reaching across differences and trying to understand people who perhaps don't look like us, don't share our neighborhoods, maybe don't share our cultures. Sometimes people say or do things that they - for which they carry regret.
CONAN: And here's - this from Susan in Des Moines: My son's white. I feel shame.
CONAN: Shame. I wonder why.
NORRIS: Well, that's a deep comment, because, you know, when you talk about your son, you usually you feel love. What she may be saying is she feels shame attached to privilege, or shame of not having to think about that. I mean, that's something, Neal, that did come up again. There's a woman named Janet Newcity. I'm looking at a woman named Janet Newcity who lives in Chapel Hill. I'm looking at the six words she sent in. And her six words were: I don't worry about my son.
And the Trayvon Martin case was a bit of an epiphany for her, because she realized that there are a lot of people who, as I said, when they watch loved ones go out the door, their worries follow along with them. And she realized that that's not something that she really has to think about.
CONAN: This is from - let's see - Justin: My six words - if Zimmerman was black, no story. This stuff, he goes on to say, happens every day in America. Just because he was white or had a non-Latino last name makes it headlines.
NORRIS: Well, you know, that's - when you talk about race in America, and certainly race involving this story, it's a big, roiling stew and there are lot of questions. If the races had been changed, if there was a - wasn't a class differential, you know, all kinds of things that might actually change the story. But we have to sort of deal with the facts that are, you know, that are actually, you know, on the table right now.
CONAN: And it was not just a story about the shooting. It was the story about the reaction of the police, who then did not arrest George Zimmerman.
CONAN: And it was a long time before, as you mentioned earlier, that came to pass. And it was about the history of the community that we found went pretty far back in history and had some ugly aspects to it.
NORRIS: Well, and that - and that's the thing about, you know, in talking about race and when people share their personal stories and why they often reach not just to the moment that's right before us, but their own personal histories, or the difficult history of race in this country. Because often when things happen, we have to put them in context. Or try to understand them, maybe you have to understand the context of the event, of the community, of the, you know, in this case, the caller, where they're coming from, the experience that they had, whether they live in the South or the North or in an urban or a rural area.
CONAN: We'll end with this one from Christie in - I'm not exactly sure where: My kid, your kid, our kid.
NORRIS: You know, the word our, when you have a conversation that is difficult as this, is a pretty good word: our, we, us.
CONAN: We've been having this conversation with Michel Norris, who's a host here at NPR, a special correspondent and also directs The Race Card Project. What's your next proposal?
NORRIS: Well, we're going to be doing a little bit of this on MORNING EDITION. We're going to be rolling out some of these stories, and you'll see a lot more of it on the Web. And it's being adapted in schools, and lovely to find out that it's here on NPR.
CONAN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.