Today, Barack Obama delivered an unexpected 18-minute talk on the verdict in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case. The remarks were heartfelt, and interesting, and worth wrestling with, and troubling. He sought to explain, in a manner I thought measured and eloquent, the reasons why black people have taken this case so personally and have reacted so emotionally to it from the outset and after the verdict—essentially that it all goes back to the unfairness and discomfort of being judged visually as a result of skin color. He said “black folks” understand that a young black male is more likely to be assaulted by one of his peers than by anyone else, but that the violence endemic to the black community has roots in a violent past, and that the reaction to cases like these suggest a level of frustration about the history of unequal treatment and violence.
I think all this is true, and an entirely accurate description of the emotions around the case—which has caused people to throw everything they don’t like into a blender and mix up a racialist stew, from concealed-carry gun laws and “stand your ground” laws to stop-and-frisk policies to (Obama’s personal example) being in an elevator where someone clutches her bag in fear that the future 44th president might steal it.
The president concluded, sensibly given some of the ludicrous things said over the past week, by pointing out how much better things are in America than they were during his youth for his kids: “I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn’t mean we’re in a post-racial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But, you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are. They’re better than we were on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.”
He also splashed cold water on the notion of a “national conversation” on race, one of the cliches of the past week: “haven’t seen that be particularly productive when, you know, politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.”
But here’s the problem at the core.
The president may acknowledge that kids deal with each other better, but what he does not acknowledge, and what those who have lost their balance when it comes to the Trayvon Martin verdict are not acknowledging, is that this country has spent nearly half a century legislating and making policy and discussing how to ameliorate the American history of racism against black people. It has not been ignored; it has not been avoided; it is one of the two or three consuming subjects of our time. The very fact that a black president made the remarks he made about the Trayvon Martin case after having been elected a second time with a combined total of 135 million votes is a far better measure of the United States and its relation to race than anything else that has happened in this country since 2008.