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Barack Obama, Trayvon Martin, and “All of Us”

This morning, the president of the United States overshadowed his own introduction of the new World Bank president by making remarks about the shocking case of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17 year-old shot to death in a Florida town by a wannabe cop who claimed self-defense and was not charged with a crime. The Justice Department is looking at the case, a grand jury has been convened to consider the case, and the nation is in an uproar about the case—all signs that, with the exception of some extremists who crawl out of their repugnant redoubts, everybody is able to see the horror in a story like this and has a gut reaction that something profoundly wrong must have taken place here. The president said some moving words—”when I think about this boy, I think of my own kids…If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon—and some not-so-moving things. Particularly this: “I think all of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how does something like this happen. And that means we examine the laws, the context for what happened, as well as the specifics of the incident.”

Hey, wait a minute. What soul-searching exactly is it “all of us have to do” here? A black kid was shot by a Hispanic adult apparently besotted with law enforcement whose volunteer work for neighborhood watch had him calling the cops in his Orlando suburb nearly 50 times in a year to report on his suspicions. That adult lives in a state where a “Stand Your Ground” law does not require people to retreat in the face of a threat outside their homes. A police chief where he lives decided that owing to the Stand Your Ground law, he had no grounds on which to arrest George Zimmerman for the shooting death—who claims he was attacked by Martin—and let him go. This is a very, very, very specific case—involving a podunk PD, an evidently problematic individual who had been slightly empowered by a private watch system, and a teenage kid in a hoodie on his way to buy candy for his brother. It took place in a state where 19 million people live. The circumstances may not be duplicable. Ever. Even so, the leading officials in the state—its governor, Rick Scott, and its superstar young senator, Marco Rubio—have already said the Stand Your Ground law may need revision in the wake of the case. The response has been overwhelming, and all in one direction.

What President Obama here is doing is suggesting this is not enough that even his own Justice Department’s involvement is not enough—that there is some kind of collective guilt in the United States responsible for George Zimmerman pulling the trigger. One can presume that collective guilt involves, in the president’s mind, the unjust stigmatization of teenaged black youths that owes a debt to the historical legacy of racism and the workings of racism in the present day. Take this argument to its logical conclusion and George Zimmerman is some kind of monster of the American Racialist Id, not a man who did something apparently very wrong but a manifestation of all American hostility toward black people.

Sorry, but I’m not responsible for George Zimmerman, and neither is anybody else save George Zimmerman. I’m not even responsible for the Stewart, Fla., police chief, whom I neither hired nor put on leave. When the president says, “all of us have to do some soul searching,” you can bet he doesn’t for one second actually include himself in that “us.” What he means is “you.”


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