Commentary Magazine

Playing the Race Card?

To the Editor:

Noah C. Rothman gives President Obama too much credit for standing up to extremists over the Trayvon Martin–George Zimmerman case [“The Media’s Zimmermania,” September]. Sure, Obama said the nation has made great progress on civil rights. But, as Thomas Sowell pointed out, he also “played the race card.”

Obama first identified with Trayvon Martin and his parents by observing that if he had a son, he could have been in the same situation as Martin. Later, he trashed the jury’s not-guilty verdict by saying no one could believe that the verdict would have been the same if the races of the principals had been reversed.

This was an outrageously irresponsible statement for a president to make—denigrating a jury verdict in the absence of any evidence of overt prejudice and at a time when emotions were high. As a lawyer he surely knew better. Moreover, his own Justice Department was investigating the case for possible civil-rights violations. He at least could have reserved judgment until the results of that investigation were disclosed.

These were not the comments of a president who strives to lead all the people. They were an attempt to curry favor with his black voter base.

Carl H. Zimmerman
(no relation to George)
Honolulu, Hawaii

Noah C. Rothman writes:

I agree with some of Carl Zimmerman’s characterizations of President Obama’s behavior over the course of this trial. His injection of himself into this tense and racially charged case even before charges were brought was unnecessary and validated the erroneous racial lens through which many in the public and in the media viewed the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

However, I disagree that when the president delivered his impromptu address to the press corps following the resolution of that case, his statements were “outrageously irresponsible.” Obama was addressing a dangerously factious nation at a time when racial tensions were inflamed by a verdict the media had not prepared the public to accept. In the black community, the acquittal came as a shock. Many who had followed the case only peripherally could not accept the notion that George Zimmerman was not guilty of murder. The perception that a racial injustice had been committed was pervasive.

Obama began by addressing this sentiment. He spoke directly to the African-American community by noting their concerns. In doing so, he captured their attention and made his declaration that racial tensions were, in fact, easing in a measurable and resonant way. He delivered this message to a rapt audience that might otherwise have been dismissive of this reality.

Obama may genuinely believe the verdict in that case was wrongly decided. If that’s true, then his acknowledgement of the empirical reality that race relations in America are improving every year was even more important. Even if it was only a perfunctory nod toward this welcome evolution, it was powerful and worthy of praise.

Some believe that African Americans and minorities were unjustifiably aggrieved by this verdict. The notion that the president should have scolded minorities for nursing this grievance is unrealistic, but it also demonstrates indifference to perceptual realities within the black community.

From the president’s perspective, preserving the comity between racial groups in the United States is of paramount importance. By directly addressing the concerns of every American in his statement to the press, Obama helped preserve that comity and began, in some small way, the process of healing.

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