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

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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.