Monday July 22, 2013

President Barack Obama’s remarks Friday on the Trayvon Martin verdict may well be one of the most enduring statements of his political career.

In a nationally televised trial, George Zimmerman, a 29-year-old former neighborhood watch volunteer, was acquitted this month of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in the 2012 shooting of 17-year-old Martin in a gated community in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman told police he shot Martin only after the African-American teenager physically attacked him; Martin’s family and supporters say Zimmerman, who identifies himself as Hispanic, racially profiled Martin as a potential criminal and wrongly followed him, according to the Associated Press.

Mr. Obama, knowing that some would want him to find fault with the verdict and others would as a matter of course pillory him for anything he said about this tragic case, basically went out and spoke from the heart.

First he did not criticize the verdict -- "Once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works." Yet he desired to place the verdict in context from the viewpoint of African-Americans, and most remarkably from his perspective as the first African-American president of the United States.

"I did want to talk just a little about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling. You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son.


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Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago," Mr. Obama said.

He spoke about the pain the incident, and the verdict, caused the African American community. "I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue from a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away."

The president pointed to experiences of being distrusted that young black men face as a matter of course. "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," he said. "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."

In addition, he cited "a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws, and that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case."

Mr. Obama acknowledged that young African-American men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, as both victims and perpetrators of violence. "It’s not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context. 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."

When this "very difficult history" and context is not acknowledged -- or denied -- it adds to the frustration of the black community. "And that all contributes, I think, to 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 said.

In asking what could be done, Mr. Obama gave little hope to those who wish for federal civil rights charges against George Zimmerman. Where we feel the president made the most sense is in questioning the wisdom of the "stand your ground" laws in Florida and at least 22 other states which, while not used as justification in the Zimmerman legal defense, help create a culture of violence in which conflicts are not defused before they escalate.

"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?" the president asked. "I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually thing that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?"

If the answer to this question is at least ambiguous, the president said, it seems that we might want to examine these kinds of laws. And we should, as those protesters peacefully occupying the office of Florida Gov. Rick Scott are requesting.

Mr. Obama also asked all of us to do some soul-searching, in families, in churches, in workplaces, to ask if we are ridding ourselves of bias as much as we can. "Am I judging people, as much as I can, based not on the color of their skin but on the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy," he said.

The president concluded on an upbeat note -- that things are getting better, using his two daughters and their friends as an example: "They’re better than we are. They’re better than we were on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country."

This was a message for all Americans by a president uniquely suited to help explain the feelings of one group -- African-Americans -- to everyone else. Those who pillory the president on most everything else have already attacked him for this speech, but we believe a solid majority of Americans see its wisdom and it will go down in history as a major address on race relations and violence in America.

~ Mark E. Rondeau