Obama on race: ‘Trayvon could have been me’

The president unexpectedly waded into the Trayvon Martin case, accepting the jury's verdict but also addressing the frustration of the black community.

The topic of race has always been “dangerous territory” for the first black president, said Paul Waldman in Prospect.org. So when Obama unexpectedly waded into the Trayvon Martin case last week, it was clear he had something urgent to say. Speaking candidly and without notes in the White House briefing room, Obama said he accepted the jury verdict that found neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman not guilty of any wrongdoing in his fatal shooting of the 17-year-old Martin. But he then addressed the frustration of the black community, saying its young men too often are “painted with a broad brush” as potential criminals. “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” said Obama, recounting his own experience of being followed in department stores, of hearing car locks click as he crossed the street, of seeing white women clutch their purses tighter when he stepped into an elevator. By so eloquently explaining his “kinship with a buried black boy,” said Charles Blow in The New York Times, the president gave “voice to a people’s pain.”

This divisive speech served only to “pick the scab off America’s healing wound,” said Joseph Curl in The Washington Times. The Zimmerman trial hinged entirely on legal questions of self-defense and reasonable doubt. Obama, though, went out of his way to play the race card, contending that if Martin had been white, “both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.” The sad truth, said John O’Sullivan in NationalReview.com, is that a young black man is 13times more likely to be killed by another young black man than by a person of another race. It’s also true that young black men cause a disproportionate amount of crime in this country. Too bad Obama glossed over these realities, while indulging African-Americans’ delusion that the greatest threat facing them is “murder at the hands of white racists.”

Obama addressed black-on-black crime head-on, said Andrew Sullivan in Dish.AndrewSullivan.com, explicitly noting that young black men are “statistically more likely to be shot by a peer” than by people of other races. But he also asked white Americans to imagine how it feels to be an upstanding black man, “perpetually deemed guilty” just because of how you look. This was an appeal for “mutual empathy.” Too bad the “knee-jerk Right” couldn’t hear it. Talk, though, is cheap, said Michael Gerson in The Washington Post. Where are Obama’s policy proposals for addressing our country’s persistent racial divide and the problems of young black men? He might start with teen-pregnancy prevention; faith-based programs that reclaim lives from gangs; expanded substance-abuse treatment; and prison reform, so that so many young black men aren’t locked up. “Is there really nothing practical that can be done?”

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Obama doesn’t seem to think so, said Ezra Klein in WashingtonPost.com. In his stirring speech on race back in 2008, he optimistically called on America to share “the audacity of hope” that we could heal our racial wounds, and transcend our differences. But five brutal years have passed, and the president who revisited race last week betrayed a “deep pessimism.” African-American youths need help, he said, “but we’re not rolling out some five-point plan.” He wearily noted that national “conversations” organized by politicians aren’t “particularly productive.” In 2008, Obama seemed to believe that with the right leaders, America was ready to move forward on race; last week, he said it might be up to his daughters’ generation. “The ones we are waiting for,” Obama seemed to be saying, “are still coming.”

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