At an unscheduled press conference on July 19, six days after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, President Barack Obama gave his first extensive remarks on a case that has divided the nation. Instead of celebration, Obama’s personal speech has garnered a surprising amount of backlash from critics. Yet Obama’s deeply emotional and frank remarks on the prevalent issue of racism should be lauded for sparking an honest, nationwide dialogue in search of some much needed progress.
“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Obama said.
Despite the profound connection that Obama established in this one comment, critics of his response abound. One Business Insider online commenter said that Obama “continuing to evoke the ‘if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon’ [line] is despicable race-baiting,” adding that “Obama thinks it is smart to inject racism and race-favoritism into the political debate.” On the other end of the spectrum, critics like talk show host Tavis Smiley have categorized Obama’s “weak as pre-sweetened Kool-Aid” response as an example of “lead[ing] from behind” on the issue of race relations.
Yet, the honesty that rang through his deeply personal reflection of the case is unmistakable. Instead of mincing words, the president brought up race as a critical player in the tragedy and Zimmerman’s ultimate acquittal in a rational and thought-out manner.
Rather than approaching the acquittal of Zimmerman with blame and anger, Obama respected how the trial was handled and its outcome, stating that “once the jury has spoken, that’s how our system works.” And yet, he did not stop there. He moved on to logically expand upon how he saw the case without escalating tension, just “talk[ing] a little bit about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling.” He eased his way into expressing his thoughts and ultimately emerged with a call to solve together a problem bigger than just one man and one murder case.
By empathizing with the pain of Americans, Obama embraced his historic standing as the nation’s first black president.
At one point, Obama clearly explained why the black community has responded to the verdict in the way it has: not because they are naive in understanding “the challenges that exist for African American boys,” but because they feel that its context, the historical background needed to understand the injustice in this case, is being denied.
Obama is not heightening racial divisions with seemingly biased statements either. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) put that criticism to rest when she said, “President Obama made a statement in a way that only he could as the nation’s first African American president, symbolizing both how far our country has come and that there is still much more work to be done.”
Presidents of the United States have lost themselves many a time in the tricky world of partisan politics. But in this instance, Obama became a unifier, not a divider. Instead of dodging questions and wanting to stay on the safer side of the political realm, Obama decided to speak up for the good of the country.
“Ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?” Obama said. “Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.”
America can do better than racial rancor. The soul-searching that Obama called for in his speech applies to us all, regardless of skin color. While his speech was not intended to solve the entirety of the race problem in this country, it should open the door to ongoing dialogue nationwide that addresses the reality of racism and prejudice in existence today as well as determining what the residents of this country can do collectively to move forward. Americans, together, should act as unifiers — not detractors — of today’s nation and its judicial system.
Valerie Yu is a sophomore majoring in biological sciences and English.
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