July 19, 2013; Washington Post


While one shouldn’t exaggerate the role of the President of the United States in galvanizing social movements, there is no question that the White House’s occupant can have an effect. Think about JFK’s role in catalyzing a generational commitment to community service, suggesting that young Americans reject asking what their country might do for them. Think about the role of LBJ, a president from the South, in the civil rights movement and his emotional, stirring speech to a joint session of Congress in favor of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, delivered one week after the violence in Selma, Alabama. Remember LBJ’s Texas drawl intoning the words, “Their cause must be our cause too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome…”

Less than a week after a Florida jury acquitted neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman on charges of murdering a Florida teenager, Trayvon Martin, President Obama has made what might be an important statement, rather different from his early appeal to the nation for calm and respect for the jury process as the decision was first announced. On Friday, he surprised the White House press gaggle with a statement about what he called the “Trayvon Martin ruling,” not the “George Zimmerman ruling.” He didn’t offer an “on one hand, on the other hand” framing of the issue. The President had something he wanted the nation to know about his reaction to the decision, broader than his commentary on the specifics of the trial and the jury deliberations, focused on protecting future black teens who might find themselves in Martin’s circumstances.

The press’s immediate reaction to his statement was to spotlight his comment that he could have been in Martin’s position as a black teen 35 years ago, but he said something more to explain the anger and frustration that has greeted the decision:

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.

One can imagine the breathless denunciations his statement will generate from conservative TV pundits such as Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly that the President is stirring up racial division in a society that has passed a major problem with race, as evinced by his own election and reelection as President. They will point out that the jury found, at least from the information presented at trial, no evidence that Zimmerman had racially targeted Martin or that he was motivated by racial animus.

The President was talking about empirically observable behaviors, and he added his awareness of empirically verifiable statistics. “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.” These issues are well documented by organizations such as the Sentencing Project, the National Council on Crime & Delinquency, and others. He could have added disparities in health treatment, educational outcomes, and much more.

As a result, he articulated a feeling shared by many blacks that many whites know as true, too: “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.” If a black neighborhood vigilante had shot “in self-defense” an unarmed white teen carrying a bag of Skittles and an Arizona Ice Tea, the race-free analysis of Trayvon Martin’s shooting death disappears as out of touch with reality.

Like President Johnson’s proposed comprehensive changes in voting rights, President Obama is following up on the jury decision to propose an initiative on law enforcement around three issues.The first one is important, but ultimately not huge, aiming to provide training from the Justice Department for state and local law enforcement personnel toward reducing “the kind of mistrust in the system that sometimes currently exists.”

Training is fine, though training seems to be the default answer of most federal agencies lately; however, the President went on to address the laws on the books that lead to the kinds of dynamics that allowed someone killing an unarmed black teenager to go free.“I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see if it—if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than diffuse potential altercations.” The President wasn’t just addressing “stand your ground” laws, which the Zimmerman defense didn’t use in the trial, reserving that defense for a potential appeal, but the broad use of self-defense laws and the stand-your-ground mentality that pervaded the trial. He noted, “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?”

His third point was to talk about “how…we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys.”

“Is there more that we can do,” the President asked, “to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?” He called for “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.”

While we have noted the excellent work of the California Endowment and the Community Service Society of New York on the challenges facing black men and boys, we don’t see that those efforts have necessarily generated a lot of policy traction.The President’s speaking out on this issue should be a major boost.

President Obama couched all of this in calling for a new discussion of race. He explicitly acknowledged that improvements in race relations “[don’t] mean that we’re in a post-racial society.” That’s an important thing for the first black president to say.So many people in the nonprofit sector and foundations have more or less articulated the notion that his election signaled American’s transition to a post-racial future.

Is this President Obama’s LBJ voting rights moment? LBJ followed up his speech with a powerful campaign to enact the Voting Rights Act, which was in some ways even more powerful than his advocacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which had the emotional propulsion of President Kennedy’s assassination the year before. LBJ used the power of his office and the power of his personality to push through the legislation meant to change the nature of how the nation enforced the voting rights of all Americans. We can only hope that President Obama, not quite in the LBJ mode of wheeling and dealing with supporters and opponents in Congress, is sufficiently moved by the Trayvon Martin decision to make this a new stage in the White House’s role in promoting racial justice.—Rick Cohen