President Obama spoke to reporters on Friday in as open and personal a way as he has in 4½ years as president. Anyone listening or watching (bit.ly/15ZxTnL) with an open mind and open heart could hardly help being moved by his measured yet deep reflection on the meaning of the Trayvon Martin shooting, trial and verdict, as interpreted through the eyes and ears of African-Americans. In that, he did a profound favor to the country – if the country were paying attention.
Here’s what the talk was not: It was not a rebuke of the jury or the criminal justice system in any way. The verdict, he noted, was the product of a well-run trial. Yet protests, mainly by African-Americans, are occurring all over the country, including Buffalo. For those who didn’t already understand the source of that frustration and anger, Obama offered a tutorial.
What he said, basically, was this: Growing up as an African-American is different, because it is weighted with a history of prejudice and hostility that informs daily life. Speaking about the “pain” surrounding the case, Obama said, “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.”
African-Americans – including himself, he said – have been followed in department stores, have heard car doors lock when they cross the street, have seen women clutch their purses tighter when they board an elevator. White Americans and, indeed, most minorities haven’t had that experience and, thus, lack the frame of reference that makes the Trayvon Martin case especially painful to African-Americans. “… it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear,” Obama said.
Imagine growing up in a country where your 19th century ancestors were held in slavery; where your grandparents, or people who looked like them, were subject to lynching and police firehoses; where your abusers could, until recent times, commit crimes against you and be certain that a jury would let them off. No one could easily put those influences behind.
How must that affect your outlook on society, on your prospects, on your interpretation of events, when a young man who looks like you is stalked by an armed man, shot to death and the killer goes free? The law says George Zimmerman was not guilty of that crime, but experience says it’s happening again – even if it’s not.
Things change quickly in some ways, but time passes slowly in others. It was only six years ago that the last widow of a Civil War veteran died. She grew up hearing first-person stories about the war and slavery and 19th century ideas about race. Those influences remain; they don’t burn off like morning fog.
Because of his background – “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago” – Obama was able to say things no previous American president could have, and with heartfelt credibility. And he did it in a way that anyone could accept.
Anyone who was interested.