Friday, July 19, 2013

"Trayvon Martin could have been me"

ICYMI, America, you elected a black president. Twice. Obama reminded us forcefully of that rather miraculous fact today, while addressing the impact and meaning of the Trayvon Martin affair.

It is always expensive for Obama to affirm his identity as an African American, and so his representation of African American experience and perspective on the Zimmerman trial today to Americans at large came couched in qualifiers. The jury has spoken, but.  Young African American men are more likely to involved in violence, but. Criminal law is mostly a matter for state and local government but. Stand your ground law was not used by the defense but. Politician-initiated conversations about race end up being stilted and politicized, but.

It was straight talk wrapped in apophasis -- "saying by not saying," or saying what I say I shouldn't say: That African Americans still encounter reflexive prejudice in their daily lives, that American justice is still far from colorblind, that we are still collectively failing African American inner city youth.

That's not a departure for Obama. His dominant mental reflex is to balance countervailing facts, on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand -- and when he has some hard-and-heartfelt truth to lay bare, it generally flashes forth out of an elaborately constructed setting of caveats and contextualization.

All the more so when he gets personal. Not I-am-the-son of-etc.-etc.-personal, but this-hurts personal, as after Sandy Hook, and here. For me, this time, the personal was in a pronoun -- not "I," the politician's favorite, but "we," as in "we African Americans."

Obama has often spoken of his experience as an African American man, and he has often spoken of the experience of African Americans. He has not often, when addressing the whole nation, used the pronoun "we" in reference to himself and African Americans  (he has done so in front of African American audiences, e.g. at Morehouse). He did so sparingly -- in just one sentence actually -- in the account below of the painful experience he shares with the African American community. Somehow, that we renders Obama more vulnerable (to my ear) than the more familiar first-person references to his own experiences of white fear. It takes him a while to get there:
But I did want to just talk a little bit about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling. You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is 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.

And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
And you know, I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences 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.

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.

I think the African-American community is also not naive in understanding that statistically somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else. So -- 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.

There is a lot of restraint here -- some elided pronouns ("there's a lot of pain around what happened here"), and a reversion to the third person toward the end. The elucidation of African American experience and viewpoint is, again carefully qualified. But that very qualification -- yes, black man are more likely to suffer and inflict violence -- is used to turn the tables on the larger community: We see what you see, but we also see behind and through it.  And that, by the way, is the moment where "African Americans" becomes "we."

I was moved sixteen months ago when Obama said, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."  I also kind of thought, without really thinking about it, that he'd regret it. Today he doubled down on that shared experience with the Martins and the African American community.  By making it personal, maybe, somehow, he depoliticized it a bit. As at other moments of tragedy -- e.g., Sandy Hook and the Gabby Giffords shooting -- he called for personal introspection in suggesting that meaningful policy change on this front would have to come from the bottom up:
And there are a lot of good programs that are being done across the country on this front. And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African-American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that -- and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed -- you know, I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was obviously a tragic situation. And we’re going to spend some time working on that and thinking about that.

And then finally, 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 finally, again characteristically, he ended on a note of personal and historically based optimism:
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.

And so, you know, we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues, and those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions. But we should also have confidence that kids these days I think have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did, and that along this long, difficult journey, you know, we’re becoming a more perfect union -- not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.
The more perfect union -- never perfected, but continually widening the circle of opportunity and inclusion -- is Obama's signature trope, as well as the title of his post-Jeremiah Wright speech on race.  For Obama, America's drive to fulfill the promise of its founding documents is always bound up with finally overcoming the "bitter swill" of slavery.  This speech brought him back to that message of mission accomplishing.

Related posts
Does Obama subject African Americans to "targeted scorn"?
Obama gets personal at Morehouse
Audacity of Obama: Embracing Wright and Grandma

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