Being the President of the United States is already hard work. Being one who happens to be a man of color in the aftermath of one out of a long string of horrific miscarriages of justice is a task of nearly-Herculean proportions, especially when countless people have their own expectations of what should or shouldn't be said.
As someone occupying a seat of immense global power, you'd think that a man like the president would have a great deal of latitude over how to publicly express his feelings on Trayvon Martin. Unfortunately, the man's obligated to play the role of "America's President™" and any attempt to voice his true feelings in a way that seemingly sides with one side of the aisle would be conflated into favoritism.
One commentator over at Abagond felt that the president did not show the outpouring of emotion or the fluidity of speech that he displayed during the Sandy Hook tragedy. Watching the speech myself in its entirety, what I saw was a man who's literally walking on oratorical eggshells - a man attempting to voice how he feels about the Zimmerman trial and its effects on the black community without disrupting, diluting or invalidating the message in the eyes of a mainstream audience that's sensitive to perceived judgement and slights, despite being more than comfortable with issuing their own.
I've taken the time to unpack my own thoughts and feelings about the president's speech, highlighting sections that stood out to me as I see fit, thanks to the convenient transcript posted in its entirety over at Huffington Post:
The second thing I want to say is to reiterate what I said on Sunday, which is there’s going to be a lot of arguments about the legal issues in the case -- I'll let all the legal analysts and talking heads address those issues. The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed that in a case such as this reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury has spoken, that's how our system works.
Unlike former president Jimmy Carter, the president never says he thought the jury made the right call or that he agrees with the jury's decision. He only mentions that the above is how the system "works" in this country. The matter of whether the trial was actually conducted in a manner resembling professionalism is left up for debate.
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.
Here, the president highlights the history of suspicion being cast upon black Americans regardless of activity or intention. He's right - 35 years ago, he would have been just another Trayvon Martin, more so if he grew up in a place like central Florida. He doesn't go into the infamous "talk" that every black male gets as he gets of age - in my opinion, that's a missed opportunity.
Now, this isn't to say that the African American community is naïve 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.
And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And the fact that a lot of 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 American boys are more violent -- using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.
The president responds to the old chestnut of black-on-black crime by saying, in essence, "yes, we realize it's a problem. We're not stupid." He deftly links the problem to poverty and America's own screwed-up history, not to any sense of innate black criminality. He also goes on to explain how the assumption of black criminality affects and frustrates to no end young black men who are most definitely not criminals, but are assumed to be by America at large.
I think it’s understandable that there have been demonstrations and vigils and protests, and some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through, as long as it remains nonviolent. If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family. But beyond protests or vigils, the question is, are there some concrete things that we might be able to do.
Considering how there have been relatively few, if any riots in the aftermath of the case, I find this bit of preemptive advisory from the highest authority of the land to be a bit...unnecessary.
Along the same lines, I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see if it -- if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than diffuse potential altercations.
I know that there's been commentary about the fact that the "stand your ground" laws in Florida were not used as a defense in the case. On the other hand, if we're sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there's a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we'd like to see?
At one time, most states featured a "duty to retreat" clause in their self-defense laws. With the advent of "Stand Your Ground," the duty to remove oneself from a dangerous situation before resorting to lethal force went out the window. The end result has been a string of cases where one side or another would have lived had it not been for the over-zealousness that a SYG policy offers to those involved.
What I and many others would like to see is SYG be suspended or preferably terminated across the board until a saner self-defense policy can be developed.
And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these "stand your ground" laws, I'd just ask people to consider, 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? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.
As I said before, if Trayvon Martin had been an actual, visible threat - armed or not - it's likely that Zimmerman would have gladly followed the 911 dispatcher's advice to leave the "heroics" to the police. Seeing someone who was not only defenseless and not surrounded by people who could, at the very least, scare him off, Zimmerman took an opportunity only rank cowards could love - the opportunity to harass and scare someone who was visibly weaker than he was to justify his own preconceptions. When it became apparent that Trayvon Martin would put up some kind of defense, Zimmerman escalated to lethal force.
To answer the question as it was intended, the realities of Trayvon Martin's racial background and standing, combined with a deceased Zimmerman's resources (in the form of his father, Judge Robert Zimmerman, Sr.) and America's own opinions of armed or potentially armed black males, it's likely he would end up with the same or worse treatment that Marissa Alexander suffered at the hands of the justice system for a mere warning shot. 20 years for Ms. Alexander, a possible life sentence - or the death penalty - for Mr. Martin.
There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven't seen that 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. On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there's the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.
America has never been comfortable with discussing race or any policies that have anything to do with race. The president wants the people to carry on dialog among themselves and their families. I don't see that working too well, either. People are often locked into what they want to think unless it touches them in an extraordinarily personal way.
I think we could use an honest, national dialogue about race, but that's a long time coming, if it ever comes. In the meantime, it's my personal opinion that the black community should do everything it can to protect itself and its most precious commodity - its children - as much as possible. That's about the only thing that can be realistically done.
At least until the president or someone else decides to risk the political capital and do something to bring about a fundamental positive change in ethnic relations and civil rights.
And that's the thing that I think pisses off many people more than anything else. The fact that the president has the most powerful platform in the world to bring about genuine social change as he pleases, yet he seemingly does nothing with it. Of course, he does well when it comes to quietly bringing game-changing mandates and bills into play through the so-called "11-dimensional chess" game. Unfortunately, people want change they can readily see and immediately feel.
President Obama was voted into office based on that desire for change and for the first three months, it seemed like he was in a position to do anything he damn well pleased. When it became apparent that he wasn't going to grab the bull by the horns, but instead guide the bull around with carefully placed feed, Americans expecting swift change were miffed, to say the least. He seemed like a lame duck long before his second term.
Lyndon Baines Johnson understood exactly what he was risking when he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the end, it cost the Democrat party its entire wing of Dixiecrat hangers-on.* In light of the GOP's various attempts to ensure monolithic power throughout America, would it really be wise and prudent for the president to risk his own political capital and the possibility of complete GOP dominance for the foreseeable future by, say, ushering in Universal Heathcare whole-hog? That's a good question for anyone to ask...
Not too many people are happy with the president's speech. White conservative commentators felt the president should shut the hell up about race. Black talking heads feel he should talk about it more and in a much more direct manner. Those on the "professional left," the so-called "emoprogs" and "puritopians," are extremely offended over the possible implication that they are not as "colorblind" or "post-racial" as they thought and extraordinarily miffed over black media being more preoccupied with the outcome of the Zimmerman trial than with drones, the NSA or Edward Snowden's next cross-continental stop as he searches for asylum.
Nevertheless, the president said what he was able to say and he still managed to bring his message forward in a clear and concise manner. No, I'm not completely satisfied with his speech, but I feel he did exactly what was required of him as President of these United States.
*Some say that it eventually worked out for the better. Too bad we got Reagan's right-wing revolution out of it.