Viewpoint: The Bravery of Obama’s Trayvon Speech

The President took a political risk because the spiritual and moral risk of not speaking to black pain was too great

  • Share
  • Read Later

The political risks in the President speaking at length about Trayvon Martin and his feelings about the continuing challenges of being a black man in modern America were innumerable.

(MORE: Obama Speaks: ‘Trayvon Martin Could Have Been Me 35 Years Ago’)

This is radioactive stuff. It doesn’t matter that he’ll never again be up for election. Obama still has years left in office and a hyperpartisan political environment to navigate. He’s become something of an invisible-hand President, often working back channels, because if he sticks a flag in the ground and demands action, congressional Republicans will then see greater incentive in defeating it. There was no policy proposal attached, but race remains such a key part of American political life that speaking about it so bluntly and at the same time with great nuance could widen the already vast political chasm. Validating black pain, asserting that profiling is real and saying that history is not an excuse but an honest part of why we are in the place we’re in are dangerous stuff when one party depends on a multiracial coalition and the other is almost entirely white and the demographic trends of America show whites becoming a minority within a few decades.

(MORE: As Zimmerman Trial Ends, What’s Next)

It was a treacherous speech politically because for one part of the divide the answer to black pain is: get over it, as Representative Andy Harris recently said. Racism is in the past, white privilege is a myth, profiling is a ghost: Doesn’t Obama’s election prove we’re beyond all that? The President knows better. He asked, in his 19-minute address, that black pain be acknowledged, that internalized bias be taken seriously, that history be understood as not done with us yet.

The assertion that blacks are hallucinating or making excuse or lying when we talk about the many very real ways white privilege and racial bias and the lingering impact of history impact our lives is painful. It adds insult to injury to attack all assertions of racism and deny its continued impact or existence. The right acts as though decades of rejection of the vast majority of the black electorate is evidence of some sort of plantation thinking rather than the inevitable response to the southern strategy and policies and rhetoric blacks find insulting. What do you mean “Stand your ground” or voter ID or immigration reform or the entitlement debate has racial tones? You’re injecting race! Playing the race card! It is like signal jamming: attack the transmission because you cannot win an argument that admits its existence. To these folks, George Zimmerman is a victim (several essays have spoken of all this as the lynching of Zimmerman). To them, race had nothing to do with this trial and now Obama has become the Race Baiter in Chief. Now he can be attacked on entirely new ground: as an apologist for black victimhood or a shameless stoker of racial division or maybe a neo–Black Panther.

(MORE: The Zimmerman Mind-Set)

Politically speaking, Obama took that risk because the spiritual or moral risk of saying nothing was too great. To have the microphone and the intellect and the personal experience and a community of citizens in pain — to have all that and say nothing would be a dereliction of duty. It would mean that the black President had somehow been cowed into not speaking deeply about blackness at a moment of national strife because it was, what, too controversial? Perhaps Zimmerman’s acquittal was the only verdict possible given the paucity of evidence and the jury instructions shaped by “Stand your ground” which give so much leeway to self-defenders who feel afraid even if, as the judge instructed, “the danger is not real.”

(MORE: A Civil Suit Could Make Zimmerman Pay — or Could Backfire)

But Obama knew we cannot understand the pain many feel around this verdict by narrowing the lens and seeing this as an isolated incident, isolated from American history, isolated from American racial norms. We are in pain now because once again we’ve been told black bodies are worth less and we are not full Americans, and fear of black bodies is reasonable and it’s our problem to manage. Obama delicately touched on all that so there’s deep, cathartic power in the President reaching down for his perch to say, I could have been Trayvon, any of us could. And perhaps unsaid though, not unheard, is this: He could’ve been me. No one would’ve thought Barry from the Choom Gang would become President. Who’s to know what Trayvon would’ve become? I am optimistic about the brother’s imaginary future even as I admit that institutional racism would’ve been an anchor weighing him down. But I’m growing more cynical about my country. Even as a boy lies dead and a President says, I too have been profiled, part of the nation still speaks of race as a flimsy playing card they rebuke. Forgive me for wondering if Obama was right when he said we’re moving forward.

912 comments
LaurenElkins
LaurenElkins

So now our own president is feeding the race bait game? smh Disgusting, Mr. Obama, just disgusting!!!

Openminded1
Openminded1

Now there is talk about putting T martins hoodie in the new black history smithsonian  in DC, are they kidding my god the race card never ends, whats next a picture of a weiners penis at the jewish smithsonian ?

marjan
marjan

A truely wonderful article, the message touches the painful  denied sophisticated racism for which one had to be vigilant indeed; author's last sentence is  formulated in wisdom and invites a further intelligent debate in stead of agressive blame games. Thanks TIMES for publishing, thanks Toure for writing,

Openminded1
Openminded1

@marjan I hope your post was meant to be sarcastic, because if not you sure are a liberal living in a fantasy land .

truckin20
truckin20

As long as you ignorant violent vicious crackas continue to ignore historical and present day racism which you your self are acting out, we will continue to race bait, play the race card (the one dealt to us by white crackas like you), and point out racism when we see it.  It's so convenient to forget history when it doesn't benefit you and your people, but in actuality, slavery, jim crowe laws, and the rest of your systematic oppressive policies, laws, and rules have given white Americans everything it has today.  White Privilege!!!  Slavery was FREE labor, slaves we're worth more than the land they slaved on, hence its why slavery became a business for white people and why the south did not want to see slavery ended.  The FREE labor produced gobbs of money, businesses including banks, insurance companies, and produced loans to lend to your parents, parents, parents, parents, to purchase your land, your stocks, your homes, your cars, and on and on.  Jim crowe laws was affirmative action on steroids for white people who already had everything they needed.  you've had a 350 year head start and you think I'm not gonna complain when you continue to cheat in order to steal our country away from us.    

Openminded1
Openminded1

@truckin20 Your country/ YOu are very much a racist race card user. You think that helps the black community, it will and always does hold you back. Keep on listening to the likes of REV Al not so sharp Sharpton and see where it gets you. He makes money off  blacks moron and only helps himself along with  JJackson who does the same. Blame whitey for your terrible life, they dealt the race card to you. what bs Stop blaming whitey for your BS. Who is in the white house, it was the non-racist whites that put him office dummy.. 

Openminded1
Openminded1

@truckin20 Ignorant violent crackas, The same word TM used the proof that blacks are more racist then whites and blacks kill many more whites and there own then the other way around. Blacks talk more violence and commit more violence per capita then  whites have ever. historical racism is just that history present day racism is here and it is blacks that are the most racist. Get back at whitey syndrome For what they did to a realative 200 years ago Not all whites are racist dummy , Who is in the white HOuse? You do not think it was just the black vote that put him there do you? because without the white vote he would still be a senator So whites can not be to racist they put a black man in office THINK.. 

Trap12
Trap12

IT had to be said and acknowledged but to call it brave gives credence to the divisiveness which exists in the country.  If the media desired to do so, it could find many, many instances of black murders of white persons, including children without fault, but it felt compelled to jump on Rev. Sharpton's band wagon soapbox and propel this story to the top of the nation's news and consciousness [not conscience].

The so-called self defense law in Florida combined with permitting wannabe cops with their courage in their holsters to actually have weapons led to a death.

I am not sure where negligent homicide existed in this process BUT disobeying a direct order of a trained police officer as to further action andthen less than perfect confrontation and control of an investigation and interview of a suspect... ??

It was poorly prosecuted, but nevertheless falling subject to our system of justice's definitions of homicides and the finding of facts necessary to find guilt in those definitions along with failure to present or discover convincing evidence. 

I do not believe any jurist can fault the Florida jury for the verdict they returned and so far I have only seen one radio legal personality, a black attorney, want to argue, sure, that is the law, but the jury was bullied into following the law?  What that attorney failed to define or discuss, instead just saying emotions or guessimates should replace the law's required finding, is the doctrine of jury nullification, where the jury disregards law that appears to require an unjust finding and returns a decision it views as just.

The problem with President Obama's speech is he also made this a black thing, he also disregarding the requirements of law and in essence, as with all of us that think there may have been more involved here, that the defendant was a racist, that a fight for survival did not occur... although without facts in evidence permitting a finding of fact to warrant a criminal guilt verdict.

So, now we have renewed declaration of racism, as if no one knew it is still around and, indeed prevalent in many places.

However, the demonstrations were peaceful... that got across, and organizers prevailed on demonstrators to remain so.  That in itself was impressive.  I had a problem believing some of the protestors, though, gave a damn about Trayvon or his family.  Sort of like the Vietnam demonstrations which pointed out the war's illegitimacy but manned with predominantly draft eligible young men not wanting to face the draft and the dilemma [if even faintly honest in their opposition] of truth and duty to country [buttressed by criminal penalties].

Nevertheless, the demonstrations were peaceful and emotions were permitted to defuse.  Kudos to all involved.

However, I am surprised no one has mentioned the O.J. Simpson verdict in justaposition with Trayvon's trial.

valentine.godoflove
valentine.godoflove

#1.    IF I HAD A SON IT WOULD LOOK LIKE TRAYVON......PRESIDENT'S OBAMA'S WORDS .....INCITING RACE WARFARE.....INSTEAD OF UNITING THE COUNTRY.....

THE GALL AND STUPIDITY TO CALL ZIMMERMAN A WHITE LATINO......HOW ABOUT OBAMA ....THE WHITE NEGRO.....AND THE WHITE CHINAMAN......THE WHITE INDIAN......OABAMA AND IS RACE BAITERS....THE JESSE THE SHAKEDOWN JACKSON.....AND THE TAWANA BRAWLEY FTMN SHARPTON... IN $5,000 SUITE AL SHARPTON....ETC...ETC

2"  OBAMA - I WOULD BE LIKE TRAYVON AT HIS AGE......ANOTHER LIE.....KENYAN STYLE.....OBAMA WAS A DOPER AND COCAINE SNORTER AT TRAYVONS AGE.....AND HE SWUNG WITH A WHITE ULTRA RICH CROWD.....PUNAHUU HIGH SCHOOL OF THE RICH IN HAWAII.....YES MR WHITE NEGRO PRESIDENT.....YOU LIE WHEN YOU SAY YOU WERE LIKE TRAYVON.....

OBAMA HATES WHITES.....READ DREAMS OF FROM MY FATHER.....THE ONLY BOOK HE WROTE BEFORE HE BECAME PRESIDENT..

#3.   OBAMA SHOULD SERVE AS AN INSPIRATION FOR BLACKS TO MAKE IT IN THIS COUNTRY INSTEAD OF RACIAL HATRED AND WELFARE......COUNTLESS IMMIGRANTS FILIPINOS, CUBANS, RUSSIANS, CHIENESE..ETC...ETC MADE IT HERE.....WHYARE THE BLACKS LEFT BEHIND?......BECAUSE OF GUYS LIKE OBAMA, SHARPTON, JACKSON....THE NEW SLAVEMASTERS......KEEP THE BROTHERS IN HATRED SO THEY KEEP VOTING FOR THEM.

50 YEARS BEING LED BY DEMOCRATS......3 TRILLION DOLLARS SPENT ON WELFARE......AND THE BLACKS ARE STILL RILING AND COMPLAINING......MAY BE......IT IS TIME TO DUMP YOUR SLAVE MASTERS AND VOTE FOR THE OTHER PARTY......THE ONE THAT FOUGHT FOR AND FREED THE SLAVES......LINCOLN AND THE REPUBLICANS.

THINK.....MY BLACK BROTHERS AND SISTER.......

VALENTINE, WORLD HISTORIAN, COMEDIAN....LOL....

gjdagis
gjdagis

He could have brought the people in this country closer together; instead he chose to drive an even bigger wedge between them!

collioure
collioure

@gjdagis

Exactly.

The incompetent community organizer aligns with the race hustling industry.

Neither this case nor the Skip Gates incident in Cambridge, Mass, four years ago had anything to do with race. In both cases the (post racial? no, most racial) President inserts himself into local matters and tries to make them racial when clearly they are not.

RedDog3
RedDog3

NO political proposal?!? Everything this guy does is a political, egoist proposal.  C'mon, TIME, stand up like you used to. Stop being a shill. Think timely.

dlashton
dlashton

PULLEEEEZE!  Brave? Pandering to the liberal media and his base?  I hardly think it was brave.  What would have been brave is not to have played the race card, to support the jury's decision and ask the country to move on. This never should have been the judicial political circus it became. If Martin had been white Zimmerman would never have been arrested.  More liberal media bias.  

amandapanda123
amandapanda123

I am white and I can say i am NOT racist. Racism depends on the person not the skin color. GOD made us all equally different no one person can be exactly the same whether it be their height, weight or skin color. Does no one ever see past skin color not even our own president. People are so stuck on Trayvon being black and Zimmerman being half white and that;s why Zimmerman killed him. NO that isn't the reason i'm tired of keeping quite my voice needs to be herd. Obama took this too a whole new level by saying that "the white part of him was happy that Trayvon martin was dead but the black half wanted justice." Really Obama that was out of line that makes it seem like all white people were happy that Trayvon was dead, but in reality I feel that no young human being should ever loss their life at an early age. EVERY race goes threw poverty not only African american's this shows the true colors of Obama. This makes me mad because everyone is out to get white people when really every race can be racist not only white people. PLEASE people don't be blinded by skin color look at the person inside. I myself am living in poverty I don't have the fancy cars shot I don't even barely have a car I don't live in a fancy house I don't get what ever I please in this world I have to work hard to earn what I need and not what I want. This goes to prove that everyone goes threw the same thing no one is different or better than anybody we are all equal. Stop making it seem like all white people are bad because like i said before "EVERY RACE CAN BE RACIST NOT ONLY WHITE PEOPLE." Thank you My prayers go out to Trayvon martins family and friends RIP 

paul46
paul46

@amandapanda123 Amanda--I like your post though I don't necessarily agree with all your points. I like the fact that you recognize God created us equally. Maybe we need to be a little careful with hyperbole though? Obviously Obama never said that the white part of him was happy that Trayvon Martin was dead...etc. I think Obama was obligated to make a statement. I think his purpose in doing so was an attempt to cool down the (still simmering) anger that Blacks feel--knowing full well he was going to rile a lot of Whites.  I agree your voice needs to be heard. Heck, I'd loan you my car except it may be worse than yours. Your last line touches me. Thank you

Openminded1
Openminded1

@paul46 @amandapanda123 he did just the opposite he helped fuel racism, he needed to keep is mouth shut . he chose to go with his blackness for the sake of being accepted as a real brother in the black community now that he no longer needs the white vote that put him in office.

Jane57
Jane57

I agree he was brave- he was screwed if he did -and if he didnt. Because of the public outrage and protest I would imagine that  any president in office would have to speak out.  The problem is everyone seeming to know what everyone elses experience is- as a black man, white man, black woman, white woman all of us. Not respecting each other and  understanding cultural differences that keep us apart- unless we have a reason to come together and talk , like this. He has been profiled-he is also a successful black man- Michelle is a successful black woman. We all profile- whether we are black or white, its ingrained in us.We judge each other the minute we see each other in different ways depending on where we are. 

 I am white- I am tattooed, I am a woman. I have had comments from people I know -saying before they knew me they thought something completely different about me when they first saw me- because of my appearance. I must be a certain way, or type of person. I've been profiled going into a store - not waited on- while people that are considered "more conservative" so they must have more money are waited on.- thats my judgement. As a lesbian I've been profiled-judged by what I do in my bedroom alone- not how I live the rest of my life. As an American whos been living in England with my British partner because of DOMA- I've been profiled for being American- a totally different culture-in good and not good ways.Judged because of my government or what is read in the paper about us.  I can't say what a black woman or man  or any other culture experience on a daily basis but I can be aware. I can be more sensitive to cultural differences instead of denying that they exist - because they will always exist.


Openminded1
Openminded1

@Jane57 BS he no longer needed the white vote he is a lame duck President. He wanted to leave office with the black approval no matter what it cost relations. He got his mother in laws respect and REV Als and his former racist pastor REV I hate whites Wright.

AllenCovington
AllenCovington

There is a simple solution to all of this...when your child gets of age, take him or her down to the firing range for lessons. After that take them down to get their gun license, I would recommend this for the whole family. Put an attorney on retainer, if in the future they feel threatened by possible killers disquised as "good" people aka "white" stand their ground from equal footing, using deadly force if need arises. There would be an adjustment period, lots of unnecessary blood but in the end both sides would realize that the toll of ignorance is much too high.

collioure
collioure

IndependentOverseasObserver (below), the closed mind is all yours.

This President and his allies play the race card regularly in efforts to divide, not to unify.

If you were more familiar with the Martin case, you might understand that certain points Obama tried to make in his speech were founded on false assumptions about the facts of the case, rendering his speech less credible and even more political than might be imagined otherwise.

We would be glad to hear the President on this topic, apart from this case, at another time.

We would welcome his attempts to unify the American people behind common causes which he has not done in 4 1/2 years now.

We would welcome his attention to important issues such as our sluggish economy, massive unemployment, the Iranian nuclear program, global warming, and energy self-sufficiency that he ignores regularly.

And when the time is more appropriate to address the state of race relations in America, I hope his record will be bereft of race-bating for at least a time and that he recognizes the great progress that has been made.

IndependentOverseasObserver
IndependentOverseasObserver

 It is a shame that many in the USA cannot take advantage of a well informed and genuine attempt by their President to lead a debate which should help reduce tensions between sections of the community.
Most commentators below who accuse the President of being a racist have already closed their minds to the fact that there is a problem in the general US society.

The problem is racism.  It does exist. Most would prefer it didn’t.

The President explaining the problems he had growing up are a statement of fact. He was trying to point out to many who have never suffered the problems of both subtle and overt racism he experienced.

The racists are those that have such closed minds that they accuse him of the racism and are not prepared to consider that not everyone comes from their privileged background.

The true test of an intelligent person in a debate of this nature is to be able to place yourself  “in the other person’s shoes” and learn about their difficulties and problems. Only then can you comment rationally.

Too many on this forum are so locked into their own beliefs they are not prepared to listen and only wish to espouse their own biased opinions.

Most those that profess to have “open minds” clearly have closed minds to the fact that there are other points of view and that some action needs to be taken to resolve the race issue.

It takes leadership to attempt to determine the type of change required in a measured and even handed manner.

President Obama successfully attempted to commence that debate.

Let’s hope there are sufficient intelligent US citizens who are prepared to follow his lead and sensibly discuss the issues.

nyfry
nyfry

@IndependentOverseasObserver A million thanks for being the one sane voice I've seen in these comments.  My god, what a bunch of morons.  It's embarrassing. 

Openminded1
Openminded1

@IndependentOverseasObserver Yes moron racism does exist, but you have it backwards , Blacks are much more racist then whites are today and Obama did not help relations he fueled it and made more diverse. You bleeding heart liberals just do not get it , bible thumping idiots. wake up you think you are intelligent , but you lack street wise mentality . God help you at 2 am in chicagos south side. action does and is needed but the action needed is open not PC communication without the likes of Rev Al . And since when can a everyday  citizen get a forum to speak the truth or add his or her opinion, Like Obama and REV AL can get a clue dummy and live in the real world not some fantasy you live in.