Why did President Barack Obama speak out Friday on Trayvon Martin’s death? He couldn’t have been more clear: “I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that — that doesn’t go away.”
Black Americans, including the first black president, have lived the Trayvon Martin story. And they will continue to do so. Said Obama: “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. That includes me. And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator.”
By showing up unannounced and unexpected in the White House press room, Obama signaled that, along with many Americans, he regards the murder of Martin and the acquittal of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman as more than a passing news story. His was loaded with empathy for the 17-year-old victim’s parents, noting the “grace and dignity” they had shown throughout the ordeal. “I can only imagine what they’re going through, and it’s remarkable how they’ve handled it,” the president said.
Obama did something he rarely does, which is to speak as a black American.
His talk included the requisite qualifiers: The jury has spoken; blacks are disproportionately victims and perpetrators of violence. But he then introduced a perspective that identified best with black Americans, and perhaps especially black parents. “We understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history. And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And the fact that a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African-American boys are more violent — using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.”
The president said he was thinking and talking to his staff about some steps that might be “productive” as the nation deals with race and the fallout of the Zimmerman verdict. He talked about training at the state and local levels to reduce mistrust in the criminal justice system.
He waded into the treacherous waters of the “stand your ground laws,” saying they needed a look. “If we’re sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there’s a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we’d like to see?”
And, very significantly, he said we need to pay attention to African-American boys. “We need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys? And this is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about. There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?”
There are people who don’t want the president of the United States speaking candidly about race. They want us all to pretend it isn’t a problem, that everyone would be treated the same if they just fit into the right box. The charges of “race baiting” started up on social media before Obama finished speaking.
Well, if talking candidly about race constitutes race baiting, then we should all retreat to our respective bunkers and abandon any hope of progress. In speaking out, Obama was true to himself. He was true to the parents of Trayvon Martin, and to all black Americans who know that they and their children deserve better than to be eyed as criminals when they’re simply going about their business.
On Friday, the nation’s first black president spoke candidly and productively about race. It was a good precedent for America.
To reach Barbara Shelly, call 816-234-4594 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at Twitter.com/bshelly.
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