In times of national tragedy we expect our leaders to speak with insight, seriousness, and solemnity. The Trayvon Martin affair isn’t a national tragedy, though, it’s a personal one.
Nonetheless, President Obama decided to discuss it today in an unscheduled appearance to talk solely about this matter. The transcript is here.
Obama’s remarks were certainly solemn, and were not devoid of insight and seriousness. At times, he rose to the occasion (to the extent this is one); at other times, not so much. My hunch, though, is that the latter times were to some extent in service of the former.
Early on, the president was short on insights. He doubled down on irrelevant biographical reflection:
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.
But was young Obama suspended from school twice, once for getting caught with a burglary tool and a dozen items of property that did not belong to him? Was young Obama into fighting and seeing his opponent bleed? Did he ever sucker punch anyone, as Zimmerman says Martin sucker punched him?
Obama explained that very few African-American men haven’t had the experience of being watched closely in a department store or hearing car door locks click as they approach. But did Obama ever respond by “grounding and pounding” the observer or the lock clicker? If not, then there’s no reason to believe that Martin could have been Obama 35 years ago.
In any event, Martin’s death is no more or less tragic depending on Obama’s biography.
Obama then offered a less than focused discussion about the “history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws” and “the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system. . .both [as] victims and perpetrators of violence.” From this discussion, he concluded that there’s “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.”
Is this Obama’s “sense?” He didn’t say. He just put it out there.
This, it seems to me, is irresponsible. If Obama really believes that, on the evidence in this case, Zimmerman would have been convicted if Martin had been white, he should say so and explain why. Referring to America’s “history” of unfair verdicts in race cases won’t suffice, absent evidence that this pattern persists — of which Obama offered none. And the fact that young African-Americans disproportionately are “perpetrators of violence” should not produce a sense that the outcome of Zimmerman’s trial was race-based.
On the other hand, if Obama doesn’t see good reason to believe that Zimmerman would have been convicted had Martin been white, I don’t think he should be voicing that view, even if he’s only attributing it to others. I suspect that Obama sees himself as an “intermediary” or “translator” between “black American” and “white America.” But the effect of this portion of his remarks is mostly to stir the pot.
Obama was on far more responsible ground when he called for non-violence on the part of those demonstrating against the verdict.
Next, in the most newsworthy portion of his talk, Obama indicated that, though Eric Holder is right to continue investigating the matter, it is unlikely that any litigation will come from that investigation:
Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government — the criminal code. And law enforcement has traditionally done it at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.
Perhaps Obama’s personalized and other musings about race in the first part of his talk were designed in part to make walking away from federal prosecution of Zimmerman more palatable to blacks. By convincing African-Americans that he really is a black president, he positions himself to receive less blowback for not persecuting Zimmerman to the max.
So too with the next portion of his comments, in which Obama discussed things like racial profiling legislation and “stand your ground” laws. I’ll leave my reaction to these policy issues for another post.
Obama then called for “all of us to do some soul-searching” in the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial. Soul-searching is never to be despised. But in the scheme of things, the Zimmerman-Martin affair is pretty close to a one-off, at least insofar as fatalities are concerned. The better cause for soul-searching is the epidemic of black-on-black killings. Obama skirted this issue early in his remarks, but did mention it in the context of soul-searching.
Saving his best for last, Obama concluded on a note of uplift:
I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. I doesn’t mean that we’re in a postracial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, 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.
And so, you know, we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues, and those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions. But we should also have confidence that kids these days I think have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did, and that along this long, difficult journey, you know, we’re becoming a more perfect union — not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.
Here, at last, was our president sounding presidential.
On the whole, Obama’s remarks were a roughly equal mixture of sense and borderline nonsense. But under the circumstances, I see the net effect as more salutary than not.
UPDATE: I managed to exclude from my report Obama’s remarks acknowledgement that the trial was fair:
The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed that in a — in a case such as this, reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works.