POSTED: Sunday, July 21, 2013 - 8:36pm
UPDATED: Monday, July 22, 2013 - 4:39pm
ATLANTA (CNN) — Two congressmen, one Hispanic and one African-American, weighed in Sunday on how they've been personally affected by racial tension in the United States. They agreed that the issue can be erased only by dialogue, not by changing laws.
"I don't think you can legislate attitude," Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-California, said on CNN's "State of the Union."
"It's not going to be a matter of instituting a particular program," he added. "It's about doing this as a collective, as a people."
President Barack Obama on Friday talked about race relations, nearly a week after the verdict in the trial for George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed teenager Trayvon Martin during a confrontation last year. The case drew national attention for its racial undertone: Zimmerman, who has Hispanic roots, initially followed Martin, an African-American, saying he looked suspicious as he walked down a street.
In his speech Friday, Obama said "Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago." He argued African-American males frequently go through uncomfortable experiences, such as hearing people lock car doors when they walk by or being followed in department stores.
"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," Obama said.
Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-Louisiana, said Sunday he experiences such incidents "on a daily basis" when he's home and "dressed down" in New Orleans.
"Even as a United States congressman, as a black one, it is very, very frustrating. You build up an internal anger that you can't act on," he told CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley.
PBS and radio host Tavis Smiley was not impressed with the president's speech. On Friday, he tweeted the speech was "weak as pre-sweetened Kool-aid" and added Sunday that Obama only made the remarks after a week of protests "pushed" him to the podium.
"But when he left the podium, he still had not answered the most important question, that Keynesian question - where do we go from here?" Smiley said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "That question this morning remains unanswered, at least from the perspective of the president."
Smiley disagreed with the idea that elected officials can't "occupy this space on race."
"Lincoln did, Truman did, Johnson did, President Obama did. He's the right person in the right place at the right time, but he has to step into his moment. I don't want him to be like Bill Clinton, when he's out of office, regretting that he didn't move on Rwanda. I don't want the president to look back and realize he didn't do as much as he could have in this critical moment," he said.
But Becerra argued Obama's openness about his own experiences will likely have an impact.
"That makes you think a lot more when your own president says that," Becerra said. But he added that changing things will require more than one person. "No one man, including the man in the White House, including a black man in the White House, can solve this by himself or herself."
Richmond said racial profiling is something that can be stopped in the law enforcement sector, but "we can't stop either racism or attitudes" through legislation.