The most important communications story of the week is undoubtedly the fallout from the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who admitted to killing African-American teenager Trayvon Martin.
Pundits from either side of the political aisle have seized on the nation’s interest in this trial to alternately demonize Zimmerman or Martin.
African-Americans have elevated Martin to martyr status as a symbol of the equality and justice that eludes them in a country where so many people dismiss the civil rights movement as finished with the popular election of a half-black president. On the other side, conservatives take every opportunity to mock Martin by suggesting he somehow deserved to die by virtue of being a lesser grade of thug while failing to recognize that their own children experiment with marijuana and make other mistakes in the process of becoming adults.
I believe the truth is somewhere in the middle, where it usually lies. Both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman stood their ground, dealing with perceived threats, mostly because the two were so culturally detached as to make blanket assumptions about the other. Zimmerman won this clash between an unstoppable force and an immovable object merely because he had deadly force and was willing to apply it.
Assumptions are a sort of shorthand that allows us to make quick judgments, but as my journalism professor used to say: ‘To Assume makes an ASS of U and Me…”
It is easy to dismiss someone who is different on the basis of their skin color or some other differentiating factor. It is much more challenging to put yourself in their shoes to truly grasp their struggles relative to your own.
If the American melting pot experiment is to survive, Americans must learn to see and respect each other not as colors but as shared hopes and fears. The capacity to see Russian parents as compassionate to the welfare of their children may be all that prevented nuclear annihilation during the Cold War.
I recently joined a cousin for a drink at a pub that overlooks a housing project. Outside the housing project, visible from our table, were a half dozen African-Americans. I told him it was beyond my capacity to see the world succinctly through their eyes, just as I imagine it would be impossible for someone like Mitt Romney to genuinely comprehend my middle class existence. What is the middle class if not a buffer between the haves and have nots?
President Obama is a testament to what African-Americans do if they obey the rules and work within the system. For him and many with whom he shares a skin pigment, the Zimmerman verdict was a stark reminder of the racial divide that remains. Obama delivered one of the most important speeches of his life. It lasted 19 minutes and came extemporaneously from the heart, rising to the rhetorical need to acknowledge the work that remains.
Obama came to the podium with an interest in preserving law and order within the nation, yet he felt compelled to explain to the rest of us why African-Americans find the verdict difficult to accept.
“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. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”
Obama acknowledged the special burden that African-American males must deal with:
“There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.”
Obama affirmed the disproportionate numbers of blacks within the criminal justice system, but he also did not sweep centuries of systematic discrimination under the rug. This was important in the context of speaking to a shared reality rather than one in which one side points fingers and blames the other without admitting its own flaws.
“The fact that a lot of African American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African American boys are more violent — using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.”
Obama used the opportunity to create a teaching moment, encouraging each American to look within for solutions. He appealed for calm at a time when many were gathering in the streets to protest a system they felt was rigged against them.
“How do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction? I think it’s understandable that there have been demonstrations and vigils and protests, and some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through, as long as it remains nonviolent. If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family. But beyond protests or vigils, the question is, are there some concrete things that we might be able to do… We’re not rolling out some five-point plan, but some areas where I think all of us could potentially focus.”
The president called for more training for law enforcement, suggesting it would both build confidence within communities and help police officers do their jobs more efficiently.
To those who felt Zimmerman was within his legal rights to defend himself, the president asked them to consider alternate hypotheses.
“I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.”
Obama spoke out regarding the plight of African-Americans in a way that no president before he could. Despite having presidents who fought for civil rights, Obama is the first uniquely qualified to share what the experience of being treated differently based on skin color is like. The simple act of a U.S. president acknowledging their struggle and right to equal justice under the law may have a ripple effect on the way young African-Americans feel about their nation and the way others comprehend our role within a more just society. The impact may be minimized by those who feel Obama, as a black man, is undeserving to sit in the White House and use their bully pulpits accordingly. He admitted the road ahead is rocky.
“I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have. On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? 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.”
It will be interesting to see what the impact of Obama’s rise to the rhetorical situation will produce from African-Americans and other races alike.