Today President Obama made an unscheduled appearance in the White House Briefing Room, in order to talk about race and the Trayvon Martin shooting. The transcript of his remarks, which were extensive, is here.
It’s tough to talk about race in America — even if you are the nation’s first African-American President. The social and cultural elements of America’s terrible and sordid racial past have made the topic virtually taboo. We’ve all been in situations where people have tried to talk about race and have said things that, intentionally or inadvertently, cause everyone to cringe. When that happens often enough, the default option is to not talk at all. And when people don’t talk about an issue, often it just becomes magnified and increasingly difficult to address.
I believe the President is cautiously trying to encourage a national conversation about race — a conversation, not people shouting at each other, or talking past each other, or limiting their comments to people who they know already agree with them. As a big believer in free speech, I think that is a very worthy endeavor. I welcome the President’s comments, which I think were a thoughtful attempt to address an important national issue. The President walks a fine line when he talks about an individual criminal case and state law issues. I think the President recognized that fact and gave remarks that were the product of careful deliberation. If people disagree with him, they should do what the First Amendment contemplates: respond to speech with more speech.
I had two reactions to the President’s comments after I read the transcript linked above and reflected on his thoughts. First, I think it is immensely valuable for the President to raise the issue of context, because it helps people like me — an aging white male — to dimly understand what I’ve never personally experienced. I’ve never had a taxi ignore my outstretched arm for no good reason, or heard car doors lock as I walk by, or shared an elevator with a nervous woman who clutches her purse tighter and avoids eye contact when I walk in. Understanding context is important, and when the man describing those unfortunate scenarios that are all-too-common for African-American men and boys is the President of the United States, it helps to demonstrate the incongruousness of a knee-jerk racial reaction. We trust this man with every secret we have and invest him with the authority to act as Commander-in-Chief of all of our armed forces and weaponry, and yet someone didn’t trust him to walk through a store without shoplifting?
The context helps to explain why the Trayvon Martin shooting strikes so deeply for African-Americans. I am sure that some people will object that the President has personalized the Trayvon Martin shooting — saying previously that Trayvon Martin could have been his son, and today that Trayvon Martin could have been him 35 years ago — but I think it is important for the President to give voice to such feelings. In order to address the issue in a meaningful way, isn’t it important to understand the intensely personal nature of such reactions?
Second, I do think things are getting better, and that the young people of America are leading the way. The President thinks, and I agree, that over time race will become less of an issue. Our challenge is to not get in the way of that cycling-down process. Angry voices and accusations don’t help. The President’s comments today were meaningful, but measured. I hope that those people who disagree with him will be equally thoughtful when they express their views.