Originally published in Official Artur Davis
Barack Obama’s initial banalities on the George Zimmerman trial—sympathy for the loss Trayvon Martin’s parents suffered, respect for the jury process—felt tepid and his observation today that Trayvon Martin could have been Obama 15 years ago felt cliched. Revealingly, to some of Obama’s fans, the pedestrian response was strategic given that Obama’s ventures into race during his presidency, from the flap over a black Harvard professor being arrested outside his home to his observation last year that an Obama son might have resembled Trayvon, have backfired. In the suggestion of the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson, given that track record, better the power of his family’s example when they walk across the White House lawn than any risky but more textured contribution to this week’s exposed wounds on race.
Of course, cheerleading about the role model value of a black man in high places has never been a thing that black commentators have embraced for its own sake, at least not when it involves the face of a Republican or even a black Democrat who was insufficiently progressive. And to lower expectations for Obama to the point that saying little is deemed more beneficial than saying much concedes one of the central premises for why a lightly experienced politician five years from a state senate seat was elevated so quickly to the presidency. It is also another instance of a second term where Obama ranges from spectator to occasional sideline critic on the domestic priorities of his own government: on immigration reform and expanded gun background checks, on the renewal of No Child Left Behind, on second tier fights over food stamps and student loans, the formula has been standard partisan ripostes after the fact and an avoidance of any mobilizing strategy that lasts beyond a morning news cycle.
So, in the vacuum Obama leaves, either an Attorney General with a hapless profile who is obscure to most white Americans, or a set of voices who have been punch lines for about a decade, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, have been ill-cast as the spokesmen for one view of the Florida verdict—that Martin is not atypical but a specter of myriad ways young black men are devalued—and the very staleness of their advocacy has been easy fodder for critics on the right who are too sanguine about the reality that astonishingly few blacks have confidence in the race neutrality of the legal system.
It is not hard to imagine what Obama might have done this week. He certainly could have lamented the most overlooked aspect of the trial, that Zimmerman and Martin very likely profiled each other, that each saw a threat and affront magnified by the other’s color, and that the ugliness of that kind of mutual recrimination too regularly spills over into every facet of black and white interaction. At the same time, there has been a need this week for the African American community to self-examine the sizable inconsistency between the elevation of a child killed by a white man into a cause célèbre and the national anonymity of, say, Hadiya Pendleton, the black majorette killed by a stray gang bullet a week after performing in Obama’s inaugural parade: couldn’t Obama have made that point more powerfully than, say, a conservative commentator like Rich Lowry, or Zimmerman’s brother on CNN, if the president’s vision of his leadership had only led him to try?
Obama’s admirers say, not illogically, that the black president can’t expend too much capital on race. But it is worth noting that one of the most cherished hopes for an Obama presidency was surely that through his powers of persuasion, ordinary subjects of “race” would be crystallized into a narrative about mutual obligation and community. The blunt truth of Obama’s presidency is that America during his tenure still struggles under the burden of racial assumptions, is poisoned by the most toxic civil discourse since the sixties, and is still a wildly different kind of enterprise for the average black boy or black girl than their white counterparts. One of the bluntest failings of this presidency is how little it has done to break the back of any single one of those stubborn truths.