President Obama surprised the White House press corps today when he dropped into the daily briefing to deliver remarks in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in Trayvon Martin’s killing. Alongside the week-long calls by many on the left for the President to personally address the issue, there had been hand-wringing on the right that whatever he could say would only further inflame the already impassioned and polarizing topic. So with whatever breath they could gather after reportedly greeting the President’s entrance with “woah!”, the press waited anxiously to hear the message he would deliver.
And the President nailed it.
On the policy particulars involved, he appropriately demurred most specifics, while cautioning:
I know that Eric Holder is reviewing what happened down there, but I think it’s important for people to have some clear expectations here. Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government, the criminal code. And law enforcement is traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.
As to the trial process itself, the President again appropriately respected the local rule of law, saying “once the jury has spoken, that’s how our system works.” But, he continued, “I did want to just talk a little bit about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling.” And that is where he drew on his unique position as a black man and as the President of the United States to bring context and clarity to the debate, and an official voice to those left feeling voiceless and devalued by the verdict.
“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” he began, for “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,” and who haven’t heard “the locks clicking on the doors of cars” when they cross the street. Black men—no matter their status or dress—have to deal with a default perception of criminality, a perception that very clearly played a role in the death of Trayvon Martin.
The President addressed critics on the right by saying “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,” or “in understanding that, statistically, somebody like Trayvon Martin was statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by someone else.” All of the above, however, “contributes to I think a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.”
He addressed the “stand your ground” laws from an Alan Jacobs position, asking if the legal protection of lethal escalation “is…really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we’d like to see?” Most damning for those laws’ standing was the simple question: “if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?”
Most important, however, was his approach to how we should go forward. “I’m not naïve about the prospects of some grand, new federal program. I’m not sure that’s what we’re talking about here,” though he hopes to use his “convening power” to do “a better job helping young African American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed.”
There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have. On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.
As I reflected last night, there have been and will continue to be discussions in barber shops and living rooms nationwide about Trayvon, Zimmerman, and race in America. Those are the conversations that matter more than any national television panel ever will. What President Obama did today was to give those discussions all the material they could need to start genuinely grappling with our social state, and our own relationship to our neighbor.
Let’s put down the computers, then, and pick up the conversation.