Six days after the not-guilty verdict came down in the George Zimmerman trial, President Barack Obama made an unexpected appearance at a routine White House press conference specifically to address the “Trayvon Martin ruling.”
He did not really want to be there. Said Tavis Smiley on “Meet the Press,” “A week of protests outside the White House, pressure building on him inside the White House, pushed him to that podium.” As a first priority, Obama sent his “thoughts and prayers” to the family of Trayvon Martin.
As to George Zimmerman and his extended family, still in hiding after a year and a half of death threats, many surely by his own supporters, Obama offered not a word of hope or encouragement.
Nor did Obama rebuke those whose threats forced the Zimmermans into an internal exile. In fact, Obama mentioned Zimmerman only once and that late in the press conference.
Expanding on his “If I had a son” remarks from more than a year prior, Obama once again identified himself with Martin, now even more intimately. “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” said Obama.
Although at 17 Obama was living in Hawaii with his white family and attending an exclusive prep school, their color was bond enough. Like all men of color, Obama knew what it was like to be followed in a department store or have women clutch their purses upon seeing him enter an elevator.
Obama did acknowledge that young men black men “are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence.” It was at this point in his talk that Obama had the opportunity to shake up the debate, to show that he was not one of the “nation cowards” his attorney general had derided.
Instead Obama pulled his ultimate punch, not in what he said, but in what he did not say. Obama let the idea stand that Martin was one of the victims of violence, but not one of the perpetrators.
If the president had called attention to the fractures in Martin’s domestic life, his suppressed criminal record, his all but unseen descent into drugs and violence, and especially his reckless attack on Zimmerman, Obama might have lent a dollop of moral seriousness to his remarks about “helping young African-American men feel that they’re a full part of this society.”
But he did not. Instead, he tacitly encouraged his audience to project their anger and anxiety on to racial scapegoat, George Zimmerman. Jesse “I want to cut his nuts out” Jackson had scared Obama off the track of serious cultural reform five years earlier. He never got back on.
Fearful of going deep, Obama spent most of the talk on shallow side issues like the limits of federal intervention, racial profiling and Stand Your Ground laws. He capped the talk off with a cheerful bromide about America becoming, racially at least, “a more perfect union.”
If that last sentiment had been true, one could forgive his swap of form for substance here, but it was not. A comprehensive poll taken by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal during the days immediately before and after his talk showed that Obama failed in the one area in which even those voted against him hoped he would succeed: bridging the racial divide.
In the month of his inauguration, 79 percent of whites and 63 percent of blacks held a favorable view of race relations in America. By July 2013, those figures had fallen to 52 percent among whites and 38 percent among blacks, a calamitous decline, rarely addressed, never explained.
“I am my brother’s keeper,” said Barack Obama in his breakthrough speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. “I am my sister’s keeper – that makes this country work.”
George Zimmerman believed that, too, really believed it. His friends called him “Tugboat,” the one who always came to help people out. He helped a black homeless man find justice. He helped guide two black teens through life. He helped a terrified mother secure her house. He helped his wary neighbors secure their community.
Even after the verdict, when Zimmerman had reason to run and hide, he helped rescue a family from their overturned SUV. And although he supported Obama, and lobbied for Obama, and voted for Obama at least once, in the final analysis he did not look enough like Obama to be his son, and that made all the difference.