Reclaiming Our Way promoting the well-being of African American children & families


President Obama’s Remarks on the Trayvon Martin Tragedy

On Friday, President Obama weighed in once again on the killing of Trayvon Martin, and the 'not guilty' verdict reached by the jury in George Zimmerman's second-degree murder trial.

In his remarks, the President speaks more openly than we've heard him before about the history of race and the legacy of racism in this country (far more I would argue than the 2008 Philadelphia speech), and how that becomes the lens through which African Americans - and an assortment of other advocates for justice - view this tragedy.

Instead of a winding narrative summarizing my take on the President's remarks, I'd rather offer a guided tour of what I think are some of the highlights, in the President's own words...

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 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.

Within these comments, which come early in his remarks, the President offers what could be interpreted as concluding statements from a Racism 101 course to help the larger American public understand the nature of the public divide in terms of reactions to this tragic killing and the resulting trial verdict.  What he also offers, which is noteworthy given his seeming reluctance to talk publicly about racial disparities, is an acknowledgement of the racism and bias embedded within the criminal justice system (including the juvenile justice system), and also that the history of racism in this country accounts for a great deal of the violence (multiple forms I would suggest) we see in some of our communities.

I say this is noteworthy because much of the President's commentary about African American community dynamics and challenges thus far has come in the form of (what I have perceived as) lecturing about the need for more personal responsibility among Black men and fathers.

Later in his remarks, President Obama offers reflections that many of us have talked about, but which I would imagine takes a great deal of courage for him to offer publicly given his office and track record...

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?

After laying out some of the policy implications, and some of the steps the federal government and some states have worked to advance, he then goes on to signify some hope for the future...

And then, finally, I think it's going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. 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.

And let me just leave you with a final thought that, as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don't want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn't mean we're in a post-racial society. It doesn't mean that racism is eliminated. But when I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I seem them interact, they're better than we are — they're better than we were — on these issues. And that's true in every community that I've visited all across the country.

While the President's remarks are modest in the greater scheme of public figures, scholars, educators and others who have talked at length about the plight of - and solutions for - Black men and boys in this country, they are still noteworthy (perhaps even courageous) given his own track record, and that of other Presidents.

Along these lines, Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, who has likely known President Obama far longer than most of the President's advisers, and indeed longer than most of the journalists and other talking heads and media pundits we find commenting on the President, argues just that point...

It was the most refreshing, startling and amazing comment I've ever heard him make in the 25 years I've known him on the issue of race; very poignant, very personal and very much, I think, a rallying cry for African-Americans and a point of contention for those who really resent the fact that he's bringing race into this equation.

Ogletree's brief interview is worth listening to (approximately 5 minutes), and places the President's remarks within the larger context of the Presidency, and also within the context of President Obama's leadership and advocacy when it comes to the experiences of other groups within this country.  Here is the brief audio, with the transcript also available online.



It's worth watching the President's remarks in their entirety (approximately 18 minutes) to best understand how challenging these comments appeared to be for him, as well as how thoughtful and deliberate he appears to be in his choice of words.  The transcript of his remarks are also available online.



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