The National Action Network's annual convention is under way this week in New York, featuring dozens of panel discussions tackling civil rights topics from voter repression to stop-and-frisk laws, as well as planned remarks by President Obama.
The event's primary goal, founder and president Al Sharpton told The Root, is to create an "action agenda" for the upcoming midterm elections.
Get the latest updates and highlights from the NAN event here.
Thursday April 10, 5:20 p.m.: What Will It Take for America to See Black Boys as Human?
"I feel that our young black boys don't feel that they're human. They don't feel love. I've met many black men who've never had another black man look them in the face to say, 'I love you.' And if you don't feel human, how do you treat somebody on the street?" television personality A.J. Calloway asked at a Thursday NAN convention panel titled, "Are You My Brother's Keeper? A Discussion on Fatherhood and Mentorship."
"And if George Zimmerman saw Trayvon as a human, he would possibly still be alive," said Calloway, who announced plans to launch a program designed to humanize black men and boys in the American imagination.
In an emotional panel discussion, marked by fiery speeches and standing ovations, Calloway and other speakers—including Trayvon's father, Tracy Martin—enumerated the ways in which they say American society undervalues and demonizes black men, pointing to deep-seated white supremacy and stereotypes that permeate everything from education to criminal justice.
"I can't be mad at the system because the system wasn't designed to protect us," said Martin. "I honestly believe that this country was built on the backs of African-American men, and we as African-American men need to stand up and claim our rights in this country." He urged the audience to treat the young men in their communities with respect from the time they were old enough to talk.
"They don't like Richard Sherman, and they don't like Barack Obama," said Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson, who argued, "In every moment, black masculinity is under the scrutiny of an unjust society." He took the African-American community to task for "smuggling in that white supremacy and internalizing the self-hatred that white supremacy purchases."
Criticizing the normalization of violence against African-American children in comparison with the sense that this "shouldn't happen here" when school shootings and other tragedies occur in predominantly white areas, Marc Lamont Hill of Columbia University Teachers College said, "The world just doesn't love black boys, so much so that we don't even allow them to be black boys."
Because of that, he said, when it comes to improving outcomes for black boys, "We can make good individual choices but we need responsible policy that is not undergirded by white supremacy, which is the elephant in the room."
Thursday, April 10, 3:12 p.m: Jordan Davis Wanted All Kids to Be Able to Afford an Education, Mother Says
In the months before Jordan Davis—the 17-year-old who was shot and killed by Michael Dunn over the loud music he and his friends played from their car—died, he was troubled by the fact that some of his friends wouldn't have the same educational opportunities as others, his mother, Lucia McBath, said.
McBath, speaking on a panel titled "Healing Our Wounds—Addressing Past Trauma to Prevent Future Crisis" at the NAN convention, explained that she founded the Walk With Jordan Scholarship Foundation specifically to create the kinds of opportunities for young adults that Jordan said he wanted all students to have.
Jordan—who was living with his father in Jacksonville, Fla., as McBath underwent treatment for breast cancer in Atlanta, where he had spent most of his childhood—would "call all the time" and lament that kids at his new school were "just as smart" but wouldn't be able to prepare for and afford the same caliber of colleges as his friends back home, simply because their families didn't have as much money, McBath recalled.
She said it only made sense that she would honor her son's memory by starting a foundation to create scholarships and educational opportunities for young adults in the communities where Jordan lived. The 501(c)(3) corporation's mission is to "encourage and financially support students striving for higher levels of academic achievement." It focuses on students at Samuel W. Wolfson High School in Jacksonville, where Jordan was enrolled when he was killed.
McBath was joined on the panel by speakers including Trayvon Martin's mother, Sybina Fulton, who discussed her own efforts to honor the lives of Trayvon and other teens like him by working through her foundation to repeal "Stand your ground" laws.
Thursday, April 10, 1:20 p.m: "Objective" Race Reporting: Is It as Big a Myth as "Postracial America"?
Journalists who gathered Thursday morning at the National Action Network's annual convention to discuss "the role of media in crafting the social narrative" agreed that the idea of a "postracial America" was a myth—but some went even further, arguing that "objective" reporting of race in America was an unrealistic and naive goal.
"Remember that George Wallace never said he was a racist. He never used the word. So how can you say we live in a postracial society when the folks who were in a 'preracial' society never said they were racist to begin with?" asked panelist and Siriux XM Radio host Joe Madison.
Johnson Publishing Co. CEO Desiree Rogers said she'd seen evidence of Americans being even more racist than in the past—most recently in the case of racialized death and rape threats against Ebony.com Senior Digital Editor Jamilah Lemieux, who misidentified the Republican National Committee's Deputy Press Secretary Raffi Williams as a white man during a Twitter exchange.
"It used to take a few drinks before people would tell you how they felt," Rogers said. "Not anymore."
The same biases and attitudes that fuel racial attacks, panelists argued, can inform even seemingly straightforward reporting. Especially when it comes to stories related to race in America, "There is no such thing as objective journalism … there's always a point of view," said Elinor Tatum, publisher and editor-chief of the New York Amsterdam News, New York City's oldest and largest black newspaper.
Citing issues including civil rights, education and the "school-to-prison pipeline," she said, "We have seen what the mainstream media has done to facts over recent years. In theory there should be a truth and a nontruth, but we have seen our truths be twisted into unrecognizable shapes."
Jonathan Alter, former senior editor of Newsweek magazine, cautioned convention delegates against becoming what he called "prisoners of a phony notion of objectivity." In the same way that it's disingenuous to act as if there are two legitimate sides to the climate-change debate, he said, "The same thing applies on a lot of racial issues." Reporters' goal, Alter argued, should be not to create an illusion of objectivity by interviewing people with opposing views but, rather, to frame these issues in ways that better serve the public.
Madison cited Malcolm X's statement that the media has "power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent," and went on to connect that view to a story connected to the NAN convention, referencing what he called the "cartoonish, derogatory images" and headlines pertaining to the Smoking Gun's report indicating that NAN's founder and president, Al Sharpton, worked as an FBI informant.
Sharpton, who moderated the panel, said, "Media can be used for and against you. It's like electricity. It can light up a room or it can burn it down, according to who's in control of the switch."
Thursday, April 10, 10:47 a.m.: Can Technology Be the Great Equalizer for Kids of Color?
At a panel discussion on education at the National Action Network Convention in New York City Thursday morning, educators focused on the possibilities that exist for students of color who are skilled in science, technology engineering and math (fields known as STEM) and enumerated the barriers that keep many of them from preparing for careers in these lucrative areas.
Technology, said Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, can be "the great equalizer."
"Thirty years ago, the jobs that had wealth were doctors and lawyers. Today they're engineers," she said. The problem, said Saujani, whose organization's participants are 80 percent girls of color, is exposure. As she put it, "You cannot be what you cannot see."
Kimberly Bryant—founder and executive director of Black Girls Code, an organization that introduces girls of color ages 7-17 to technology and computer science skills—echoed the importance of educating girls and young women in the STEM skill sets that they too often aren't exposed to in the classroom.
Capital Preparatory Magnet School Principal Steve Perry argued that even more urgent than teaching STEM specifically is teaching children to read and write well. "Confidence precedes confidence," he said, insisting that students who feel they have a place in the classroom can take on any subject that is placed in front of them. He earned applause—and vocal criticism—for his critique of pubic schools, which he said are "not working for our community."
Lisa Staiano-Coico, president of the City College of New York, voiced concerns about the ways in which racial and socioeconomic disparities among elementary and high school education manifest themselves at the college level. At City College, she said, "students are already tracked out of STEM before they even get to us because they haven't had the math expertise, they haven't been given the self-confidence." Further, she said, unlike at elite universities, many students have to work all summer to make their tuition, can't take advantage of doing free internships, and "they also don't come with built-in networks," she said.
Ivory Toldson, deputy director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs, explained disparities in STEM education in part by the fact that many African-American kids are "being starved by lack of access to AP courses" and attend schools without access to basic preparatory courses like algebra II. In addition, he said, the ways in which teachers talk to kids about STEM education can serve to dissuade them instead of encouraging them to embrace it. "What we really need," he said, is to "check the attitude of the teachers who discourage them before they even get started."
The panel was preceded by comments from Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who argued that efforts to educate every American child are "under assault in a well-planned, well-funded and well-executed manner," asking, "Why is it that testing is elevated over teaching? Why is it that America's epidemic of childhood poverty is ignored?"
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root’s senior staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.