Saturday, July 20, 2013

Obama Speaks about Trayvon Martin...

...and reminds us that he's not only an eloquent speaker -- he spoke without a teleprompter -- but that he also has something significant to offer to the conversation driven by both the event of Trayvon's death and the subsequent trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman.

The president speaking before the press corps yesterday morning.

As I read the transcript of the president's remarks, I was moved by not just his grasp of the almost undeniable truths of the African-American experience and its bearing on the current situation but also by his straight-forward admission that he has lived through its historical context himself. As the first black president, he has remained remarkably calm and taciturn, unshakable in the face of a continuing, open assault on his character, on his history and his ideas. Some, even on his side of the political and cultural spectrum, criticize him for his reserve.

However, Barack Obama's instincts have been right in this: As the first black president, his attempt to be the first post-partisan and first post-racial national leader has been admirable, consistent, and well-intended if not totally productive. It's allowed him to remain above the fray, always measured, and never offering the opportunity to be branded the uppity black, which, let's face it, conservatives would have done at every turn. It's been a remarkable course he's taken and has bolstered the potency of his remarks on Trayvon Martin to the White House press corps:
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.  And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.
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.  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.  That happens to me -- at least before I was a senator.  There are very few African Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.  That happens often.
And I don't want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.  And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.  The African American community is also 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.
Now, this isn't to say that the African American community is na├»ve about the fact that African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system; that they’re 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.  They 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, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.
Obama goes on to place the events in a historical and cultural context. He emphasizes that another Washington blue-ribbon committee is the last thing we need, as such things are for show and rarely if ever produce anything of value. He does emphasize that we could all use some self-reflection and discussion in our communities, to see where we fit into the historical continuum and whether there's something each of us can do to move the country forward on the issue of race. The whole transcript is here.

We do not live in a post-racial world, which the president admitted in his remarks. I know that, for myself, I've struggled with the legacy of racism, as I'm sure every self-reflective American can acknowledge. I first encountered African-Americans in my boyhood when my family lived for two years in small-town Georgia, where I couldn't help but notice that my in-town school was all-white, while the blacks, who did come in town to shop, attended all-black schools on the edge of town.

When I asked my mother why this was so, she replied that this was the way it was in America, and she emphasized that it was wrong and she wished it were not so.

Like a lot of Americans, I've spent much if not all of my life in small, largely white towns and suburbs and thus learned about African-American culture and experience in movies and on TV. My few encounters with blacks have, as far as I can recall, been cordial and benign, though in a number of circumstances I was, not surprisingly, suspicious and afraid. Nothing came of such encounters, and by this I realized just how deep and pervasive institutional racism has been and remains so. That I feared black men when never having had a personal reason to do so is shameful but not surprising.

It's exactly the same kind of experience that gives rise to prejudice that drove George Zimmerman to do what he did. The difference was simply the lack of judgment and the lack of self-reflection on the matter, coupled with the notion that it's okay to walk around at night with a gun, playing cop under the guise of neighborhood watchman. Anyone, though, can be an undercover racist. Much to my own shame, I should know.

So Barack Obama is right to point to context and ask Americans to self-reflect, and he's right to point out that with each new generation we seem to be moving in the right generation. But to think that we've made sufficient progress, as the recent Supreme Court on the Voting Rights Act wrongfully assumed, is to fool ourselves. We have a long, long way to go. Let's, again, get started.

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