Sensing or informed he had not said enough about the verdict that exonerated George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin, President Barack Obama called a special press conference on Friday to “talk a little about context and how people responded to it and how people are feeling,” he said near his opening remarks.
There was a gathering storm of disgust, especially from African-Americans, that the president was missing in action on a verdict that was troubling for not only Black Americans, but thousands of those who participated in rallies and demonstrations from coast to coast.
After giving his condolences once again to Martin’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, Obama recounted what he had said when the tragedy occurred last year. He said that the teenager could have been his son. “Another way of saying that is, Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” he said.
But, on the verdict, he said: “The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed … and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works.”
To have limited his concern to the judicial process would not have pacified the growing outcry against his silence, and so the president, as promised, set his comments within a historical context. “The African-American community is … knowledgeable that there is 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,” he said. “Now, this isn’t to say that the African-American community is naive about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately 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.”
Obama the pragmatist was once again at work. In the same breath in which he finally opines on “racial disparities,” he has to balance it with the notion that our young Black men are “disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence.”
His ambiguity continued when he stated, “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-Americans boys are more violent—using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.
“I think the African-American community is also not naive in understanding that, statistically, somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else,” the president added, alluding to the ever-menacing fratricide of Black-on-Black violence.
Toward the end of his address, the balancing act was set aside, but then he appeared to be preparing Martin’s family and their supporters for the big letdown if the family decides to file any kind of lawsuit against Zimmerman.
“I know that [Attorney General] 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 has traditionally done it at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels,” he explained.
After suggesting there may be ways the federal government can circumvent state laws, Obama found it necessary to insinuate that sense of accountability so often nestled in the heart of his speeches directed at Black Americans.
“We need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys?” he asked. “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”
Before concluding, he reminded his fellow citizens that we are not living in a post-racial society. “And then finally, I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching,” he said. “You know, there has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven’t seen it 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.” But that one conversation that might be helpful and convey more of his concern about what happened than a meeting with Martins parents. Of course, given his pragmatism, that might then necessitate a meeting with the Zimmermans.
Even so, though it took a while, Obama has weighed in the issue and, in a typical, Lincolnesque way, pled that the “better angels of our nature” prevail and that we keep pushing for a “more perfect union.”