The Obama Speech On Trayvon Martin Was Brutally Honest — And Magnificent


Liberals ... we have our Obama back.

Well, let's not go too far. The president who repeatedly compromised when it wasn't necessary (see the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), reneged on promises (see Guantanamo Bay), and betrayed his own professed principles (see PRISM) cannot be entirely forgiven for his ideological betrayals simply after one press conference.

Then again, what a press conference it was.

One must bear in mind here that, despite his reputation as a barrier-breaker due to being our nation's first African American president, Obama has not actually done very much for the black community during his time in office. He has appointed fewer blacks to cabinet positions than his two immediate predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush; eschewed the kinds of aggressive anti-poverty measures that could reduce skyrocketing inner city unemployment rates, allowing black joblessness to reach perilous heights; and refused to aggressively act to halt federal policies like the War on Drugs, which disproportionately target minority citizens. His acclaimed "More Perfect Union" speech may have been delivered only five years ago, but in light of the disparity between that soaring oratory and his subsequent policies, one wouldn't be surprised for feeling like five decades have passed.

That is why, before progressives start cheering Obama's recent comments, our president has not had the best track record of reinforcing his rhetoric with substantive action. At the same time, in light of his recent mealy-mouthed defenses of such policies as PRISM, we can at least be grateful that he is avowing the right ideals again.

So what exactly did Obama say?

First and foremost, he drew upon his own experiences as an African American male to explain why so many in the black community feel as strongly as they do about the Trayvon Martin shooting.

He recalled his own memories of being followed in department stores and hearing car locks click as he walked down a street, as well as learning about the racial underpinnings of many of America's legal policies, from the death penalty to drug enforcement (although, again, Obama has done virtually nothing to address these issues himself).

When non-black Americans look at the Trayvon Martin fiasco, Obama pointed out, they need to remember how these social paradigms "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."

From there, Obama made it clear that he, like most African Americans, understands the complexity of this issue. Blacks are not naive "about the fact that African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence."

At the same time, they also realize that much of the violence which takes place in poor black neighborhoods stems both from America's long history of racial violence against blacks and from the oppressive conditions of poverty itself. As a result, when the statistics that apply to some black men are used to justify profiling most or all of them, African Americans see this for what it is: "an excuse to then see [their] sons treated differently [that] causes pain."

The bottom line, as Obama soberly stated, is blacks being left with "a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different."

This, as they say, is really the nut of it. For all of the attempts by Zimmerman supporters to obfuscate the issue, the reality is that the forensic evidence never bore out Zimmerman's claim to have acted in self-defense. His wounds were not consistent with those caused by the head trauma he described, Martin was not behaving in any way that would have suggested to a reasonable person that he was engaged in criminal wrongdoing before he was stalked, and because witness claims contradicted each other regarding whether Zimmerman or Martin started the fight, one could hardly rest on certainty that Martin had absolutely been the aggressor.

Yet we live in a racist society, and for all of what Young Turk Cenk Uygur rightly characterized as the "boo hoo"-ing of Zimmerman supporters at having the infamous "r-word" applied to them, the pro-Zimmerman reasoning has always been fundamentally racist at its core. Had Martin been white, he would not have been stalked, and had any white teenager been killed under comparable circumstances, no mass movement would have emerged to label the victim as the thug and sympathize with the dangeorus hothead who killed him.

All of this was present in Obama's remarks today, along with a list of suggestions as to how we can prevent future tragedies like the Martin shooting from happening in the future. Most of these ideas were very good: Encouraging governors and mayors to work with law enforcement on ways to discourage racial profiling, evaluating how "Stand Your Ground" laws (though not used in this case) could be 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," working with "business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes" to create programs to help "young African American men feel that they’re a full part of this society."

Finally, he encouraged Americans to engage in some brutally honest introspection about their own attitudes toward race, so that the prejudiced mentalities that led Zimmerman to shoot Martin and so many others to support the killer could be more effectively confronted.

Obama should be commended for injecting these ideas into the public dialogue ... and, of course, repeatedly reminded of them. Just as his remarks today show that the Obama for which we voted isn't entirely gone, so too should his track record make it clear that we cannot entirely celebrate him as having returned. This doesn't mean "Obama's Back," but rather "Obama Might Be Back."

When all is said and done, the appropriate progressive response to Obama's remarks would be to act as if he just said to us what Franklin Roosevelt said to some of his supporters eighty years ago:

"I agree with you. I want to do it. Now make me do it."