Obama: "Trayvon Martin Could Have Been Me, 35 Years Ago"

Posted: Jul 19, 2013 3:38 PM

The President of the United States surprised reporters by appearing unannounced at today's daily press briefing to share his thoughts on the George Zimmerman trial and its implications.  I'll offer a few thoughts below, but first, here's the video (via our own Greg Hengler):

In order to put my commentary of Obama's statement into proper context, allow me to express my existing biases about the recent verdict -- about which I haven't written very much: The evidence presented at trial was clearly insufficient to merit a conviction on the home-run charges, which were filed for political reasons.  If the state had been focused on securing a conviction, they'd have tried Zimmerman on significantly lower charges.  They were not and did not.  Unwise actions from both Zimmerman and Martin contributed to the latter's tragic death.  The victim was not a saint, but neither is the man who shot him to death.  A teenager is dead.  A black family has lost a son.  And a Hispanic family's lives will never be the same.  There are no winners in this case, and there's nothing to celebrate -- aside, perhaps, from facts prevailing over emotion in a court of law.  Also, the Justice Department's post-verdict pandering is obscene.  With all that said, here are the elements of the president's impromptu remarks that I personally found to be edifying and productive:

On the legal process and verdict: 

"The second thing I want to say is to reiterate what I said on Sunday, which is there are going to be a lot of arguments about the legal -- legal issues in the case. I’ll let all the legal analysts and talking heads address those issues. The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed that in a -- in a case such as this, reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works."

On African-Americans, crime, historical disparities, and excuses:

"The African-American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case. Now, this isn’t to say that the African-American community is 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. It’s not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context. We understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history. And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And the fact that a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African-American boys are more violent -- using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain."

On race relations in contemporary America:

"I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. You know, there have been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have. On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s a possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can; am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy. And let me just leave you with -- with a final thought, that as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. I doesn’t mean that we’re in a postracial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are. They’re better than we were on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country."

Other portions of the president's commentary were less impressive.  For example, he once again insisted on making this case about himself.  After the shooting, Obama said his hypothetical son might have looked like Trayvon Martin.  Today, he took the self-centered analogy a step farther:

"Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African- American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African- American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that -- that doesn’t go away. There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me."

This line might also raise eyebrows:

"So folks understand the challenges that exist for African- American boys, but they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there’s no context for it or -- and that context is being denied. And -- and that all contributes, I think, to 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."

That general sentiment may be true for a variety of reasons (especially in regards to the media's treatment of the case "from top to bottom"), but his phrasing invites various interpretations, not all of which are healthy or helpful.  Finally, Obama acknowledged the fact that Florida's "stand your ground" law was not at issue in this case, yet he took the opening to criticize it anyway:

"I know that there’s been commentary about the fact that the stand your ground laws in Florida were not used as a defense in the case. On the other hand, if we’re 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, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we’d like to see? And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these “stand your ground” laws, I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?"

The president urged Americans to engage in individual and collective "soul searching" over this incident, though he cautioned that a politician-led "national conversation on race" may not be advisable.  He took no questions from the press.  Opinions about this trial, its outcome, and this president are very polarized.  Even so, as I said earlier, a teenager is dead and racial tensions are sadly running hot in this country right now -- thanks in large measure to the contemptible behavior of our media, and the conduct of certain actors who thrive on stoking racial resentment.  More so than usual, as you weigh in on these difficult issues in the comments section, please make an effort to be thoughtful and respectful.  Finally, I suspect Allahpundit's (admittedly cynical) take-away from Obama's soliloquy is at least partially accurate:

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