Kids these days: ‘Better than we were,’ the President says

President Obama gave a preliminary statement last Sunday right after the jury gave its verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, but then after watching the controversy unfold in the days that followed, he said yesterday (7/19/13) in the White House briefing room that he thought it might be useful to expand on that a bit.

Besides the calmness in his voice and quiet in the room for those 17+ minutes, two things really stood out to me in his remarks: his faith in young people and the importance he gave context.

Context is essential

Whether on phones or in homes, in the halls of school or government, in the manic rush of everyday life and the 24/7 news cycle, it’s almost as if it’s now an established social norm (or a requirement) to form opinions instantly or pass judgment without gathering perspectives – without understanding the context around what happened. In a powerful way, the President showed how important it is to understand the context. “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” he said.

“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,” the President continued. “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….

“The African-American community is … 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….

“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.”

Context is important, whether we’re talking about criminal justice in courtrooms or in schools or homes. Multiple perspectives and an understanding of context – of the event itself and of the people involved – are needed before people will feel justice is being served. And this is no different when children are involved. What are we modeling for them if we fail to factor in their perspective and context when working through problems involving our children?

Faith in our kids

Are you seeing it too? I’m seeing evidence of what President Obama says here wherever I go also: “When I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact,” he said, “they’re better than we are, they’re better than we were on these issues. And that’s true in every community I’ve visited all across the country.”

News stories about social cruelty and bullying notwithstanding (remember that the news reports airplane crashes, not safe landings), “we should have confidence that kids these days I think have more sense than we did back then and certainly more than our parents and 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 [emphasis his].” More perfect, not less, in their hands.

The President is both confirming and echoing what others are seeing (e.g., see a list of positive youth social indicators just over the past 20 years here). He’s also modeling something important here, I think: If “those of us in authority” can see and expect the best in our children, if we could do “everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature,” as he put it, our children will respond in kind.

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