Obama takes on the presumption of thuggery that permeates Martin case
Everyone looks to their president for protection against calamity, and black voters are no different. One little discussed fact of the Obama presidency is how it has been a singularly disastrous economic period for the first black president’s most loyal constituency: black people.
This has led to a running joke in families like mine where, nonetheless, black people cannot utter a word of criticism about him. They love him unconditionally.
On a recent visit to my older relatives in Detroit, I again asked whether there was anything more they thought President Barack Obama could do for blacks. These are wise retired folks in their 70s and 80s, fixed-income veterans of America’s race relations and unions. With their beloved city then teetering on bankruptcy, declared just days ago, none offered anything but new ways to praise him.
This muted feeling of unacknowledged (but not unrequited) love in the face of so much hardship was finally answered when Obama—unannounced, without notes yet with immaculate clarity—spoke candidly about the acquittal of the man who killed an innocent black Florida teenager, Trayvon Martin.
The president’s remarks were not the direct statements about how African-Americans have suffered disproportionate rates of unemployment, foreclosure, lost wealth, criminal prosecution or other measures of opportunity collapse for which some have long pined. But because he spoke in the present tense as a black man for black people and began by establishing the context for his/their/our understandings of the case, he came close.
He began by explaining how he could identify with the parent of a boy deemed dangerous — because he too was a boy deemed dangerous who lived to become a parent. “When Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son,” Obama said. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
This is the presumption of dangerousness that permeates the Martin issue and keeps it in the streets.
Martin’s tragic death is much more than the failure of two laws that conservative PACs have successfully pressed to pass in dozens of states—Stand Your Ground and leniency about carrying concealed weapons. It is that Martin could not escape the suspicion of being a thug, rather than a scared child.
The verdict corroborated a widespread view of Martin’s thuggishness. It validated the look of horror in George Zimmerman’s eyes as he pulled the trigger. And this loose idea of Martin’s thuggery is close to the idea of the teenager’s worthlessness. These laws plus these attitudes ultimately gave Zimmerman permission to kill him.
Obama spoke to this perception of thuggery in personal terms that suggested only his current position exempted him from the same suspicion. “There are very few black men,” the president said, “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.”
When Obama’s comments rebutted the presumption of Martin’s thuggery, the lens turned back to the teen’s humanity, which had been eclipsed by stereotype. Until then, the only look of horror the jurors seemed to have imagined was Zimmerman’s. The only self-defense they envisioned was his too. As they made their way through the judge’s confusing instructions, the only ground they considered standing on was Zimmerman’s.
Obama reminded us that there is another look of horror in those encounters. It originates with the sense of threat from a strange man following Martin in the rain to the gun suddenly aimed at his chest. This is a danger too often perceived by black men throughout American history—especially when the threat appears to come from a white man. But even in those many cases where both victim and shooter are black men, the horror is just as real — and as unacceptable.
Obama spoke to the simplistic way that black-on-black violence feeds perceptions of black male worthlessness. Of disproportionate involvement in violent crime, the president said, “It’s not to make excuses for that fact — although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context. They 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.”
This is painfully complicated context, presented by, of all people, the president of the United States, who comfortably added that there is frustration when “that context is being denied.”
Self-defense law is typically all about context. Yet the Zimmerman verdict showed how the Stand Your Ground law diminishes context in ways both counterproductive and discriminatory. Without providing a basis to distinguish one kind of threat from another, the law presents the unmanageable scenario of equal rights to use lethal force — whomever shoots first wins.
Yet not for Martin. His right — even to react in fear — was negated by the presumption of thuggery in people’s minds. His right of self-defense as a frightened young man seemed invisible under the law.
“And for those who resist the idea that we should think about something like these ‘Stand your Ground’ laws,” the president continued, “I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?
But Martin represents even more for black people and for all of us. If the perception of worthless thuggery can rely on such flimsy evidence as Zimmerman’s that fateful night, then maybe thuggery is more than a hoodie, a school suspension and marijuana use. Maybe its perception requires black students to overcome presumptions that they’re not capable or deserve excessive discipline at school. Maybe it justifies stop-and-frisk tactics that, as New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly is alleged to explain, are partially designed to intimidate young black and brown men into believing they are suspects until proven otherwise.
Worse, maybe the perception of worthless thuggery presumes bad parenting by black parents, bad decision making by black consumers, bad work habits among black job applicants and bad black neighbors. Maybe Detroit—a city that is 82 percent African-American, a city my cousin likes to say helped black people first learn how to be black — is now bankrupt because of the thuggery of bad black governance, too.
Maybe “We are all Trayvon” is a way of collectively saying that, at some level, we are all scared of being taken for thugs and paying thug consequences.
To this the president was moved to speak, employing not anger but executive empathy.
We expect our presidents to set a policy course, to govern their vision through a constitutional combination of legislative influence and agency decision-making — especially in a period of acute economic harm.
We’ve seen Obama’s two policy powers stymied consistently by the fierce opposition of enemies in Congress, bent on frustrating his executive appointments, denying his legislative agenda and denigrating him personally.
This happens to be the perspective of my elder family members. The right’s willful obstructionism is the main reason they won’t criticize the man. They don’t believe he has been allowed to do the job for which he was twice elected.
Yet a president has another power in addition to and even because of the fierceness of his opposition. That is to deliver his moral imprimatur, to make statements, to consistently promote a rhetorical transformation in how the country ought to think and talk about its values. This is also how change happens.
Obama could have been using this power all along, with more explicit references to the disproportionate burdens faced by black folk, or poor folk, or victimized folk. He could have better highlighted neglected patterns of exclusion in housing opportunity. He could have declared his administration’s intention to enforce anti-discrimination laws already safely on the books. He could even have made explicit the importance of healthcare reform — done right — to the particular communities that have been most marginalized by the current system.
However, Obama’s remarks about Martin finally reached the core of these concerns — by dignifying even the identities of Americans who every day are trying not to die.
What about Detroit? It too is trying not to die. To many, Detroit is the profile of municipal delinquency, a testament to undisciplined black leadership and the ignorant voters who supported them. Many suburbanites there believe anyone with a brain has long left the city.
But the truth about the city’s demise, like the truth about a teenager’s character, is more complicated. In the city’s case, Detroit represents uniquely unlucky facts around the loss of solid manufacturing work that doomed many urban centers in America. The circumstances were overwhelming. The leadership was not up to the task.
But it would be unfair to tarnish the residents — like my family who stayed on — with a “broad brush,” as the president said.
Thus, Detroit is, like Martin, a broader symbol of things we need to do better as a nation. Sad that the canaries in the coal mine are so often black. Fortunate that, this time, a black president can at least explain that sadness to all of us.
PHOTO (Top): Trayvon Martin banner. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn
PHOTO (Insert A): President Barack Obama pauses as he talks about the Trayvon Martin shooting in the press briefing room at the White House in Washington, July 19, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing
PHOTO (Insert B): Brendon Daniels holds up a can of iced tea and a bag of skittles during a rally in support of slain teenager Trayvon Martin in Orlando, Florida, July 17, 2013. REUTERS/David Manning