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DIONNE: The painful paradoxes of race

  • (JOEL PETT / Lexington Herald-Leader)

“In the jewelry store, they lock the case when I walk in,” the young African-American man wrote. “In the shoe store, they help the white man who walks in after me. In the shopping mall they follow me. ... Black male: Guilty until proven innocent.”

“I have lost control of my emotions,” he declared. “Rage, Frustration, Anguish, Despondency, Fatigue, Bitterness, Animosity, Exasperation, Sadness. Emotions once suppressed, emotions once channeled, now are let loose. Why?"

The words came not in response to the George Zimmerman verdict in the Trayvon Martin killing but rather to the acquittal of the police officers in the Rodney King case. The author of the May 6, 1992, column in the Stanford University student newspaper: Cory Booker, now the nationally celebrated mayor of Newark and the front-runner to be the next senator from New Jersey.

Booker pointed me toward his angry essay while on a visit to Washington last week. We spoke over a late breakfast the day before President Barack Obama went to the White House briefing room to issue his powerful reminder to Americans that “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”

It tells us something important about America in 2013 that two exceptionally successful African American men, both of them widely acclaimed across the lines of race, chose independently to underscore the same truth about the Martin killing: that, in the president’s words, “the African American community is looking at this issue though a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”

And both focused resolutely on how to make things better. My interview with Booker didn’t start with the Zimmerman trial. Instead, the practically-minded mayor spoke enthusiastically about a program he had established in cooperation with the libertarian-conservative Manhattan Institute to help men released from prison become better fathers. “The right intervention,” he said, “can create radically different outcomes.”

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