Why John Legend and Michelle Obama are talking about racism now

Musician John Legend says racism is 'killing our kids.' Why is racism becoming a prominent topic of conversation? 

(Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
John Legend participates in AOL's BUILD Speaker Series to discuss the film "Southern Rites" at AOL Studios on Monday, May 11, 2015, in New York.

Earlier this week, John Legend stopped by The Daily Show to talk with Jon Stewart about racism, which the singer-songwriter said is "killing our kids."

"Some racism is very easy to identify, the Donald Sterlings of the world, the people who use the N-word in a malicious way," Mr. Legend, whose upcoming HBO documentary, "Southern Rites," focuses on segregated proms and racism in Georgia, told Mr. Stewart. "But a lot of racism is structural," such as the way sentencing works in the criminal justice system, he said. "All of these things that end up discounting the value of black lives."

With his decisive comments, Legend is among a growing number of prominent figures speaking out about race in recent months, bringing the issue to the forefront of the national conversation. Most recently, first lady Michelle Obama addressed the topic in a candid commencement address at Tuskegee University in Alabama, and the President, who was reticent to speak about race for much of his first term, has also made numerous comments about the progress the US must make on race relations.

Joining them in recent months are comedian Chris Rock, NBA stars LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, and former NBA star Charles Barkley, all of whom have shared strong, if differing, positions on racism, with national audiences.

Why are they talking about racism now?

The events in Ferguson, Mo., in which black teen Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white police officer on August 9, 2014, ripped open a fervent national conversation about racism, black youth, and police abuse. Subsequent riots and a series of other deaths of black men and boys at the hands of police officers in Staten Island, Cleveland, and Baltimore, intensified the debate.

Consider President Obama, who, in his first term, often appeared hesitant to address race. He distanced himself from Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who had made controversial comments about race and the Sept. 11, 2001 attack in 2008. Obama was widely criticized for his 2009 White House beer summit, in which he offered a feeble attempt to mend ties between Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and a white policeman.

The shooting of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old, unarmed black teen in Florida, who was killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer, appeared to rouse the president.

"Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago," he had said after his death in February 2012.

In December 2014, the first couple opened up about their own experiences with racism, telling People Magazine, "It's one thing for me to be mistaken for a waiter at a gala. It's another thing for my son to be mistaken for a robber and to be handcuffed, or worse ..."

And most recently, Michelle Obama attracted attention – and blowback – after a frank commencement address this past Saturday.

"Because here’s the thing -- the road ahead is not going to be easy. It never is, especially for folks like you and me. Because while we’ve come so far, the truth is that those age-old problems are stubborn and they haven’t fully gone away," she told graduating students at Tuskegee University. "And as we’ve seen over the past few years, those feelings are real. They’re rooted in decades of structural challenges that have made too many folks feel frustrated and invisible. And those feelings are playing out in communities like Baltimore and Ferguson and so many others across this country."

Her comments were widely criticized by conservatives. “White people in droves went out to vote for you,” Glenn Beck said on his radio show Monday. “You were somehow invisible so much that you became the President and First Lady of the United States of America? Tell me about the troubles that you have seen!”

In his Daily Show interview, Legend acknowledged the discomfort and fatigue around race.

"We don't want to talk about racism all of the time. If it weren't here, if we didn't have to deal with it every day, we would love for it not to be the subject of conversation," said Legend.

"We would love not have to keep bringing this up but it's killing our kids, it's resulting in so much pain and suffering for our community, so we have to bring it up."

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