Barack Obama is one of the most thoughtful men ever to occupy the Oval Office. He is the rare president—nay, the rare politician of any sort—who is a true intellectual, effectively reasoning his way through his job.
Anyone who still doubted the commander-in-chief’s cerebral capacities, having heretofore attributed his rhetorical magic to speechwriters and Teleprompters, was given a rather stern rebuke by the president’s comments on Friday regarding the shooting of Trayvon Martin and subsequent trial of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted of both murder and manslaughter charges last week.
The 17-minute quasi-speech, extemporaneous and flowing directly from the president’s heart, covered similar territory as his celebrated “race speech” of March 2008, and seemed to make the same broad point: On matters of race relations, the United States has progressed and matured by leaps and bounds, but is still very much a work in progress. Racism in America is not nearly as bad as it once was—not by a long shot—but it has not altogether disappeared. It has merely grown more subtle.
Obama’s central plea in these addresses is for white Americans to understand why many black Americans still feel they have gotten a raw deal from their mother country. That nearly every black person, at one time or another, has found himself the object of a white person’s fear and/or suspicion for no reason except that he is black.
The implication, in light of the Zimmerman verdict, is that a white person’s irrational, prejudicial views about black people can lead to a senseless killing and, more alarming still, allow one to literally get away with murder. In other words, this is not merely a philosophical problem.
The popular view about George Zimmerman is that the only reason he considered Trayvon Martin “suspicious,” following him across the neighborhood and thereby provoking a scuffle that led to him shooting Martin dead, is because Martin was black. Had Martin been white, the theory goes, Zimmerman would not have given Martin’s behavior a second thought and the shooting would never have occurred.
We have no idea if this is true. Zimmerman denies it, although he could be lying. The audio of his phone conversation with police has him commenting, “These assholes, they always get away,” but we have no particular cause to assume he had black people in mind. For years, his and Martin’s gated community had been rife with burglaries, break-ins and the like, committed by people of many skin colors. Racially speaking, “these assholes” is fairly all-encompassing.
It is with these details in mind that we must consider the president’s observation that personal experiences of white people’s prejudices “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.”
My question is this: For how long will it be “inescapable”? Under what circumstances will it no longer be morally justified to infer racist motives in cases where such prejudices are not necessarily borne out by the facts? Assuming a white person harbors racist views is certainly justified by history, but what happens when it’s not justified by the evidence?
The president didn’t say, and I rather wish that he had.
My primary concern (beyond the Zimmerman case) is that the heretofore understandable black suspicion toward white suspicion will endure far beyond its natural lifespan. That the notion that white people assault black people for purely racial reasons will continue to be accepted as a given, thereby allowing America’s residual racial divides to survive to fight another day.
As a highly imperfect analogy, one might consider certain Jews’ attitudes toward the Republic of Germany.
In the early years following the end of the Second World War, members of the Twelve Tribes could be forgiven for suspecting that folks with German blood were, shall we say, out to get them. A crime committed by a German against a Jew could reasonably be assumed to have been anti-Semitic in nature.
Today, nearly seven decades since the last gas chambers were extinguished, Germany has all but outlawed anti-Semitism within its borders—denying the Holocaust is a criminal offense—and individual Germans tend not to be any more anti-Jewish than other Europeans; if anything, they are less so.
Yet there are countless Jews who still refuse to buy a German car or patronize German businesses, even here in the states. No one has to explain why this happens, yet we are nonetheless entitled to question whether such behavior is any longer rational or even ethical. Why should a German teenager automatically suffer for the sins of his grandfather?
The message is not “forgive and forget.” Some people don’t deserve to be forgiven, having committed crimes that ought always to be remembered as sharply as one can muster. Some modern-day Germans (and non-Germans) really are out to get the Jews, just as some white folk really do profile black folk, sometimes in a lethal fashion.
Rather, one should refrain, as much as one can, from combating bad faith with bad faith. A right, two wrongs do not make.
The ultimate solution, as President Obama correctly noted, is for those still in need of enlightenment on the issue to be given the education they so urgently require. As we wait for such an eventuality to occur (not that such a project will ever truly be complete), we would do well for ourselves and our society—if I may coin a phrase—to give each other the benefit of the doubt.