When President Obama issued a pro forma statement following last week’s verdict in the Zimmerman trial, there was some disappointment—“Why didn’t he say more?” It only takes a small step back to see the answer; not only would it have been inappropriate for the president to question the decision of the jury, but given wide outrage at the ruling, it could have inflamed passions on both sides.
But it isn’t out of bounds for Obama to speak on the meaning of Trayvon Martin, which he did this afternoon, during a White House press briefing. And unlike his earlier statement, this was a frank and heartfelt take on the racial issues surrounding the shooting and the trial.
Which, to be honest, came as a surprise. Barack Obama’s entire political career has been about de-racializing his personal identity. Yes, he was a black senator from Illinois, but for white audiences at least, he wasn’t a black one. It’s why the Jeremiah Wright controversy was so dangerous for his candidacy—it emphasized his blackness at a time when he was trying most to build a universal appeal.
What’s become clear during his presidency, however, is that there are limits to this de-racialization. For a substantial number of white Americans, there is nothing he can do to deemphasize his racial identity—his blackness will always stand as his most important trait. It’s why, after nearly ten years on the national stage, you have large numbers who insist on his foreign birth, and it’s why—after stepping into race-related controversies in 2009 and 2012—his approval rating dipped among white voters.
Obama gains nothing by identifying with his blackness, but in talking about Martin, he did exactly that. “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son,” said the president, “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” He continued, “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.”
Obama emphasized the extent to which its this context—the suspicion of criminality heaped on young black men—which informs the response of the broader African American community. “And 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.”
Fear of African Americans is a real thing. According to a recent study, more than 40 percent of white Americans said that “many or all” black men are violent, compared to the less than 20 percent who said the same for white men are black women. It’s this generalized fear—which, again, African Americans see and perceive—which raised other questions about the Zimmerman case, questions which Obama asked in his statement. “If Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?” He also voiced a potent hypothetical. If a “white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario,” the “outcome and the aftermath might have been different.”
This is provocative. It’s asking Americans to empathize with Martin—to put themselves in the shoes of a black teenager, walking alone, at night, being followed by an older man—and try to see the circumstance as he would have experienced it. Other presidents have spoken frankly about the challenges faced by African Americans—Lyndon Johnson’s speech on the anniversary of Gettysburg (he was vice president at the time), stands as an excellent example—but no president has ever asked Americans to try to imagine the perspective of a black boy. It’s a powerful appeal, and my hope is that the public will take it seriously. My actual expectation, however, is that they won’t.
In keeping with previous rhetoric, Obama did acknowledge the problem of violent crime in inner city black communities,“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.” But he correctly emphasized the extent to which this isn’t justification for racial profiling. And while he didn’t say it, the implication was clear: That blacks commit crimes at a higher rate than other groups isn’t proof of inherent black criminality, and treating it that way leads to the profiling and suspicion that is a burden on African Americans men of all stripes.
I was watching the statement as it happened, and was following the conversation on Twitter. In addition to the usual explosion of right-wing and racist trolls, there were also more earnest questions from people who were either frustrated or annoyed with the president’s perspective. “Why isn’t he speaking for all Americans? Why focus on blacks?”
But Obama is speaking to all Americans when he talks about black people. White Americans have a racial identity too, and they’re as much a part of America’s racial story as anyone else. Racial profiling, racial inequality—these are problems for us all, because race is the quintessential American concern.
The idea of race was shaped on American soil, and racism—as a system, as an ideology—is part of our national DNA. Our Founders were shaped by it, our Constitution codified it, and we fought a deadly war over its most important permutation. To speak about these issues is to speak America’s native tongue, and as any immigrant can attest, you never lose the language of your birth.