Yesterday President Obama gave a much commented on speech, spurred by the “Not Guilty” verdict the jury found in the case against George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin. The Wall Street Journal was impressed:
Six days after a Florida jury acquitted a Hispanic man in the shooting death of an African-American teen, President Barack Obama made his first extensive comments on the case, speaking in personal terms about his own experience of being black in America.
” Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” the president said in the remarks, made Friday during a surprise appearance in the White House press room. Mr. Martin, a 17-year-old African-American, was shot and killed in Florida last year in a case that riveted millions of Americans and sparked debate over the state of race relations in the country.
But he tried to explain the lens through which black Americans may see the case, saying that their own experiences and the country’s history with race inform how many view what happened to Mr. Martin.
“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,” Mr. Obama said. “That happens to me—at least before I was a senator.”
On Friday, Mr. Obama noted that African-Americans are disproportionately victims as well as perpetrators of violence. And while he called for soul-searching on matters of race, he said he sees signs of improvement.
“Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race,” he said. “It 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 [daughters] Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are.”
Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass wasn’t nearly so impressed:
Could Obama have been Trayvon Martin 35 years ago?
Perhaps. If so, then any of us could have been Trayvon Martin. And I could have been Trayvon Martin. Racial motives weren’t established at trial. And reportedly, the FBI still hasn’t found racial motives in George Zimmerman, who is Hispanic.
Race was established by the president of the United States, and by other political and media actors. It’s a cynical business, about money and power, about keeping divisions between American tribes. There are the black tribes that see Martin in the context of the old civil rights struggles and leverage, and white tribes that see Martin being used to pummel them with racial guilt.
The algebra of all of this is as old as some musty textbook in your uncle’s garage. We’ve seen it before. We’ve heard the lines, the formulations, the slogans, and some of us recite them the way we recite phrases from television commercials. We’re given just enough evidence and we’re told we must choose a side.
By saying he could have been Trayvon Martin, President Obama bypassed the evidence and established his own motive. Only a maestro could accomplish this.
“I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul searching,” Obama said, and I hope he included himself in the search.
“There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race,” he continued. “I haven’t seen that to be particularly productive. When politicians try to organize conversations they end up being stilted and politicized, when folks are locked into the positions they already have.”
They get locked into positions with help from those who would ostensibly lead them away from ignorance and anger and fear. No one wins the game of tribes but the leaders.
To understand where I’m coming from I’ll need to pass on some anecdotes. The first is a conversation I had with a friend more than twenty years ago. We had invited a young couple for dinner at our home. They were, perhaps, the handsomest couple I’ve ever seen in terms of sheer physical beauty. He was black. She was Native American and Hispanic. I don’t remember the precise context but at one point my black friend said something that’s stuck with me. “What happens to you when you get on a bus? The exact same things may happen to you as happen to me but we won’t have the same experience.”
I suspect that every black kid in the country has had an experience with racism, whether actual dyed-in-the-wool racism, soft racism, or merely their own putting a racist spin on experiences I wouldn’t have interpreted through the lens of race. “She doesn’t want me because I’m black”. “They don’t like me because I’m black”. “I would have gotten a better grade if I hadn’t been black”. “I would have a job if I weren’t black”. From the standpoint of internalized experience does it make a difference whether those interpretations are true or not? I don’t think so.
Do I think that racism exists in the United States today? There’s no question of that in my mind. Do I think that every instance perceived as racism is actually racism? Absolutely not.
Here’s the second anecdote. My mom spent a good part of her life teaching poor black kids. Something she frequently said: “They believe the lie”.
Finally, one of my best friends in college was Hawaiian. When I was in grad school we roomed together for a while (more accurately: I slept on his couch for a month or so until I found an apartment of my own). Through him I met and befriended quite a number of Hawaiian kids at my alma mater. My friend had attended high school at Kamehameha and was, of course, native Hawaiian. Another friend, Lloyd, had attended Punahou, the school that would later be attended by the young Barry Obama. Lloyd was Japanese-American and his family was quite well-off.
In 1980 fewer than 1% of Hawaiian household had even one black member. There were very few African Americans in Hawaii, there was no black community there, Hawaii is extremely racially diverse, and Hawaii has no history of anti-black racism. I don’t believe that any of my Hawaiian friends had so much as seen an African American in person until they came to the mainland.
In Hawaii, Barack Obama was just one mixed race kid in a place where being of mixed race was not at all unusual. If he experienced racism, it was either when he came to the mainland or it was in his own head.
But that means that Barack Obama couldn’t have been the Trayvon Martin he’s imagining or, at least, he couldn’t have been in a sense different than I could have been.
I could never have been George Zimmerman. By the time I was George Zimmerman’s age I had taught judo and self defense for well over a decade and, not only was I strong in mind and body, defending myself by reading and avoiding trouble was ingrained in me as much as breathing. I have never felt the need to carry a firearm because I can defend myself with weapons that can’t be taken away from me.
But by the same token I could never have been Trayvon Martin. I would never have confronted George Zimmerman but even if I had once he was down I would have run away as fast as I could.
The facts as we know them of the Zimmerman-Martin case are that George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin and that a jury acquitted him of any crime on the basis of self defense. Everything else is speculation. It’s the racism in our own minds and hearts.