Anyone who thought the acquittal of George Zimmerman would easily be the most disappointing thing Americans would hear last weekend was quickly proved wrong. There were countless offensive reactions to the verdict, most notably gleeful celebration (which I refuse to dignify by giving the sources of said celebratory reactions the benefit of additional readers and page views through links in this column). But the most offensive reaction of them all came from a surprising source: President Barack Obama.
The White House released the following statement on behalf of the president:
The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son. And as we do, we should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities. We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis. We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this. As citizens, that’s a job for all of us. That’s the way to honour Trayvon Martin.
The president left out one small detail. Well, several actually. For starters, one way to honour Trayvon would be to have an honest conversation about why his death happened. You cannot do that without mentioning the issue of race. Yet, somehow, the president managed to avoid mentioning it in the 166 words above. Just as he carefully avoided mentioning it when previously discussing this tragedy last year.
In May 2012, Obama said: “My main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” He was criticised by the usual suspects, among them then-presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who called the comment “disgraceful”. Gingrich went on to say: “It is a tragedy this young man was shot,” later adding, “When things go wrong to an American, it is sad for all Americans. Trying to turn it into a racial issue is fundamentally wrong. I really find it appalling.”
However, the president actually did not turn it into a racial issue, even though he should have, because the tragedy is one rooted in race.
Yet, while countless high-profile black Americans weighed in with their own stories of racial profiling, something the president’s own attorney general, Eric Holder, has even discussed on the record, the White House strived to do everything possible to distance the president from the ugly truths and incredibly uncomfortable conversations this case forced many Americans to have. The most uncomfortable is the one in which people are forced to admit that even some white Americans who voted for Obama would probably fear a man who looked exactly like him if he were walking down the street at night, wearing jeans and a hoodie — and not because he was wearing a hoodie, but because he was a black man wearing a hoodie.
This reinforces the fact that as much as America has advanced on the issue of race, conversations about the topic are far more complicated today than they were 50 years ago. Do not get me wrong — I count my blessings that I didn’t grow up in the segregated South like my parents did, but as I have previously written, policy issues like segregation at least have a clear-cut solution. Pass the right laws and take down the “Whites Only” signs.
In medical terms, that kind of racism is like a tumour that can be surgically moved. But the kind of subtle racist thinking that led to the Trayvon Martin tragedy is like a cancer that has spread and is so insidious it is nearly invisible and therefore virtually impossible to treat. So it is allowed to continue spreading and killing, as it killed Martin.
For the president to not even acknowledge the existence of such a cancer is unconscionable. It is the equivalent of the nation’s surgeon general saying: “Remember to eat your vegetables, but as far as cancer goes, it’s certainly a tragedy for all Americans and that’s all I have to say about that.”
The president should say more. When it comes to issues like sky-high black unemployment, Obama has spent much of his tenure in office running so far from the issue of race that he is close to falling off a cliff. Many of us forgave him for his silence before the last election, recognising that the cancer of subtle racism that killed Martin could quite possibly kill the re-election hopes of any black candidate who dared have the courage to honestly discuss the racial dynamics of the case. But now he is in his final term and yet he continues to pretend that America’s racial cancer is in remission.
There is an episode of the television show Law & Order in which a black attorney is asked by a white counterpart if he thinks of himself as a black lawyer or as a lawyer who’s black. During a racially charged case later in his career, the attorney comes to the conclusion that he originally considered himself the latter but grew to realise that he was the former.
Here’s hoping that before his final term in office concludes, the first black president will rightly conclude that he is a black president and not just an American president who happens to be black, and subsequently has a responsibility to speak for those black Americans who cannot speak for themselves.
One of them is Trayvon Martin.
— Washington Post
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent.