Chapel Hill panel: We must talk about race

tgrubb@newsobserver.comSeptember 13, 2013 

— Communities need to admit race is still an issue and deal with it by getting comfortable with an uncomfortable dialogue, community leaders and residents said Thursday.

“A lot of social behavior is not under our conscious control,” said Lorie Clark, a Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools teacher. “We don’t take time to critically examine our belief systems. We just kind of go with them.”

Nearly 100 people gathered at the Chapel Hill Public Library for Thursday’s talk – “Lessons learned from Trayvon Martin: Could it happen here?” The event, designed to ferret out the lessons Chapel Hill can learn from the Florida teen’s fatal shooting, was sponsored by the town’s Justice in Action Committee. Chairman Will Hendrick said the committee was established years ago to reflect and focus on the town’s commitment to racial justice.

Thursday’s event was not aimed at second-guessing whether the jury got the verdict right against George Zimmerman, the man who shot Martin, he said.

“There’s no dispute that this case struck a chord across America, and there’s something we can learn,” he said.

John Rubin, a professor in the UNC School of Government, said North Carolina’s “no duty to retreat” law is not much different from the “stand your ground” law in Florida. North Carolinians have a right to defend themselves, their family, others or their property with reasonable force. But that right also comes with a responsibility to be sure there’s a reasonable need to defend yourself, you are not the aggressor and the force you use isn’t excessive, Rubin said.

Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue said the town has roughly three dozen neighborhood watch groups who should never patrol their neighborhoods the way Zimmerman did that night. Instead, neighbors are encouraged to stay alert, be good witnesses and, most importantly, get to know their neighbors, he said.

If the problem involves law enforcement attitudes or racial profiling, Blue said he wants to know about it. The department’s goal is to talk with the officer, provide more training, if needed, and monitor how the rules are being followed. The Chapel Hill department also needs to do a better job again of recruiting minorities and women, he said.

Clark and other black members of the panel related their own experiences with racism. Black parents constantly warn their children to be in “survival mode” – being careful what they say and do around others to avoid being seen as threatening.

UNC student Matthew Taylor said he seen little racism since coming to Chapel Hill, but as he was returning to his dorm one night, he got behind a white, female student going in the same direction. She stopped to ask not-so-politely where he was going. When he told her he was returning to his dorm, she asked which one as if she didn’t believe him, he said.

“Racism doesn’t really strike me by surprise. I come from rural town,” he said “You don’t always have to have someone with a hood or from the (Ku Klux) Klan to put that fear in your heart.”

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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