The Trayvon Martin tragedy has America looking for answers to difficult and uncomfortable questions. America has struggled with the relationship between race and the rule of law throughout its history, but never before have the country’s two chief law enforcement officers - the president and the attorney general - been men of color. Clearly, President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder’s legal obligations are no different than those of the other men and women who have previously held their respective offices but, as African Americans, the gravity of Obama and Holder’s achievements in racial progress come with new responsibilities and considerations.
This past Friday, President Obama spoke publicly about Trayvon Martin’s death for the first time, expressing how deeply it affected him as an African American father. He asked all Americans to do some “soul searching to figure out how does something like this happen” and discussed what we can do to make it right. Obama’s words, though succinct, followed a steady theme in his comments on race.
Obama spoke most famously about race during his 2008 campaign as news outlets heaved with videos of his former pastor, Rev. Jerimiah Wright, from his Chicago pulpit, blaming America for the attacks on September 11th. The overriding message of Obama’s speech was that, despite our history and the original sin of slavery, the content of our Constitution, the disposition of the American people, and the “long march” of those that have come before us can enable future generations to succeed in building “a more perfect union,” a union “perfected over time.”
Obama hasn’t always navigated racial waters with such aplomb. In 2009, when Dr. Henry Louis Gates, an African American and a professor at Harvard, was arrested after his attempts to enter his own locked house were mistakenly interpreted by a neighbor as a burglary attempt, Obama claimed the arresting Cambridge police department “acted stupidly.” As details of Gates’ own overreaction and other circumstances of the case came to light, Obama backtracked, admitting his mistake in speaking on the subject without knowing all the facts. This misstep may explain the one month wait between Trayvon Martin’s death and Obama’s comments, allowing local law enforcement the (squandered) opportunity to right the situation before weighing in.
President Obama has asserted in the past that, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, America missed a “transformative moment,” a moment when the eyes of the nation were focused on a great injustice and real change could be made. In turning away, he argues, we “relieve[d] ourselves of the responsibility to make things right.” He spoke of this responsibility last Friday saying that the Martin family has a “right to expect that [we will] take this with the seriousness it deserves, and that we’re going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.”
After Obama’s election three years ago, Eric Holder became the first African American attorney general having also been the first African American deputy attorney general under Janet Reno and President Clinton. For the most part, Holder is more guarded than his boss in his public statements and is decidedly less gifted rhetorically. At times, Holder has struck a more defiant, activist tone in discussing racial politics and issues and has faced criticism for the Justice Department’s handling of certain race-related cases. He was notably chided by Obama after describing America as a “nation of cowards” for shying away from a modern conversation on race in America, although it was more the clumsiness of the delivery rather than the validity of the statement that irked the president. In 2009, Holder was accused by a number of Republicans of reverse discrimination in choosing not to pursue a case against several Black Panther Party members accused of voter intimidation during the 2008 elections.
Perhaps Holder’s greatest legacy as it relates to the Trayvon Martin case is a commitment to gun control and the elimination of gun-related violence. First as attorney general of Washington, D.C., then as part of an amicus brief in 2008, Holder worked to maintain the capital’s handgun ban, a cause that was ultimately lost. He has since sought to bring back a Clinton-era ban on assault weapons that expired under George W. Bush.
In response to the Trayvon Martin killing, Holder and the Justice Department opened a civil rights inquiry last week, acknowledging that, at the request of 14 members of the House Judiciary Committee, they will “explore the applicability” of the federal hate crime statute. These proceedings are in addition to those already under way at the state and local level in Florida. Holder, as Obama mentioned in his comments last Friday, will undoubtedly also examine the controversial “Stand Your Ground” laws of Florida and nine other states, which allowed George Zimmerman to claim self-defense in the killing despite first pursuing the unarmed Martin. Beyond philosophical differences with “Stand Your Ground,” Holder will be able to point to extensive data showing that in Florida the law costs more lives than it saves and that the vast majority of those killed in self defense since the law was enacted were unarmed.
Inevitably, criticism will find Obama and Holder. Community leaders have questioned the delay in comment and action, with George Zimmerman still a free man. Political foes, including the Republican presidential candidates, have predictably claimed that Obama played the race card in his now famous “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin” line. Newt Gingrich went so far as to say that the line was “disgraceful,” insinuating that Obama would care less if he didn’t share a skin tone with Martin. For some, any consideration of race as it relates to the law is affirmative action or reverse discrimination.
Both Obama and Holder, however, understand that with any law, one must take into account both the America that we want and the America that is. Although we may want a colorblind system that requires no corrective action, the reality is that we still live in a country and a society filled with prejudice. To enact and enforce laws which do not take into account our prejudices, whether conscious or unconscious, is to invite the kind of tragedy that has befallen Sanford, Florida this past month. Obama and Holder have trod carefully, recognizing the delicacy of the situation and the stakes at hand. But with the whole country once again focused on a tragic injustice, the time is now to continue the long march towards a more perfect union. By making clear that Trayvon Martin’s killing is both intolerable and avoidable, and backing up that declaration with incremental but decisive progress, Obama will be able to fulfill the promise he made to the Martin family.