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Obama on Trayvon: One Speech Captures the Strength and Weakness of the Obama Presidency

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On Saturday July 18, 2013, with a few thousand other people, I participated in the Trayvon Martin commemoration held at New York City's 1 Police Plaza. Local politicians showed up along with social justice activists, a lot of concerned African American parents, and of course, the television cameras and crews. I even caught a glimpse of Beyoncé and Jay-Z as their entourage was leaving. Frequent chants at the rally were "I am Trayvon Martin" and "No justice, no peace."

Al Sharpton, who helped organize the dozens of simultaneous rallies in cities and towns across the country, issued a call to people upset with the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman to participate in the 50th Anniversary March on Washington on August 28 that I also plan to attend. Mr. Sharpton wants to ensure an aggressive federal investigation of Mr. Zimmerman for civil rights violations and to mobilize against Florida's "stand your ground" law, both positions that I support.

But I do not think identification with Trayvon Martin, calls for a federal investigation of his death, and opposition to Florida's "stand your ground" law are enough. The racial divide in the United States goes much deeper than this and is buttressed by the problems of poverty, urban decay, unemployment, and poor quality education that especially plague low income African American communities. There needs to be action and leadership on the highest levels.

In some ways for me, even more disturbing than the killing of Trayvon Martin is the death of the entire city of Detroit, which filed for bankruptcy last week, because it affects so many more people. Since 1990, the population of Detroit has plummeted from approximately 1 million people to 700,000.

Poverty and its partner crime in what remains of Detroit is endemic. From 2000 to 2009 average household income declined from almost $30,000 to barely $26,000. By 2010 average family income in Detroit was several thousand dollars below the U.S. average. At least one-third of the population of the city lives in dire poverty, but everybody lives in the shell of a city with virtually no social services, failing schools, declining police protection, and fewer and fewer functioning street and traffic lights. In 2012, Detroit had the highest rate for violent crimes in the United States for a city of over 200,000 people. Over 82% of the remaining population trapped in the former Motor City is African American. Less than 8% are non-Hispanic Whites.

While Trayvon Martin is an important symbol for the March on Washington, focusing on his death and the acquittal of his accused killer is not enough. This march has to be about reversing what is happening in Detroit and inner city minority communities across the country.

Which brings me to the impromptu speech by President Barack Obama on the significance of Trayvon Martin. It was a speech that captured the strengths, but also the weaknesses, of the Obama Presidency.

Since he was first elected President in November 2008, Barack Obama has rarely spoken in public about racial tension in the United States. However, he was deeply moved by Trayvon's death and on Friday July 19 he read what The New York Times described as "an unusually personal, handwritten statement" to reporters in the White House briefing room. The United States' first President who is Black summed up his views with a single line: "Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago."

I read the text of the speech and I watched in online a number of times and it continues to be an extremely moving statement. Barack Obama, as he nearly always does, gave an excellent speech. Obama sent his "thoughts and prayers, as well as Michelle's, to the family of Trayvon Martin" and complimented them "on the incredible grace and dignity with which they've dealt with the entire situation." He acknowledged that in "the African American community at least, there's a lot of pain around what happened here" and wanted Americans to recognize that the African American community looks at this issue through a "set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away." He explained that "very few African American men in this country," including the President himself, have not experienced "being followed when they were shopping in a department store," having women clutch their bags when they walk by, or drivers lock their doors. He emphasized "those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida." He felt the situation grows even worse, adding to the frustration of the Black community, when the lingering effect of racism goes unacknowledged.

But when you look at the text of the speech more carefully, you realize that there are serious problems with the Obama statement. The imagery and timing are great but the substance of the speech is lacking. President Obama tells the audience that although the pain is real, there is not much he or the federal government can do about it. For Obama policing and "stand your ground" legislation are local concerns and the best the federal government can do is to promote better education. Obama rejects the possibility of "some grand, new federal program" and declares that the problem of racial discrimination is actually "getting better." His main, perhaps his only recommendation is that Americans should have a "conversation on race" and it is important for all of us to do some "soul-searching." He even offers White America an excuse for inaction when he says that unlike in the Trayvon Martin case, young Blacks are statistically "more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else."

Yet three other American Presidents, one Republican and two Democrats, all White, used similar disturbing events as a stimulus to take strong executive action to combat racism in the United States.

In 1957, when the Governor of Arkansas used troops from the Arkansas National Guard to turn back nine African American children and prevent the integration of Little Rock High School, President Dwight Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne Division into the city to insure the safety of the Black students and to enforce a ruling by the United States Supreme Court.

In a press conference, President Eisenhower told the American people,

"In that city, under the leadership of demagogic extremists, disorderly mobs have deliberately prevented the carrying out of proper orders from a Federal Court. Local authorities have not eliminated that violent opposition and, under the law, I yesterday issued a Proclamation calling upon the mob to disperse . . . The very basis of our individual rights and freedoms rests upon the certainty that the President and the Executive Branch of Government will support and insure the carrying out of the decisions of the Federal Courts, even, when necessary with all the means at the President's command."

In May 1963, President John F. Kennedy found pictures of police attacking non-violent demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama with batons, dogs, and high-pressure fire hoses sickening and shameful. A month later he announced his support for sweeping civil rights legislation that would become the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

President Kennedy told the American people,

"The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated . . . this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free . . . I am, therefore, asking the Congress to enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public--hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments . . . I am also asking the Congress to authorize the Federal Government to participate more fully in lawsuits designed to end segregation in public education."

In 1965, civil rights activists were attacked by state police in Selma, Alabama as they marched toward the state capital demanding the right to vote. President Lyndon Johnson deplored the violence and injustice, dispatched federal officials to the state to monitor the situation, and proposed legislation that would become the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

President Johnson told the American people,

I am certain Americans everywhere join in deploring the brutality with which a number of Negro citizens of Alabama were treated when they sought to dramatize their deep and sincere interest in attaining the precious right to vote. The best legal talent in the Federal Government is engaged in preparing legislation which will secure that right for every American. I expect to complete work on my recommendations by this weekend and shall dispatch a special message to Congress as soon as the drafting of the legislation is finished.

Within this tradition, the American people, all the American people, need Presidential leadership and action as well as a program for new legislation that will finally end racism in the United States. One focus must be on strict gun control taking both legal and illegal guns out of the hands of people who have no reason to have them. The second focus must be on ending the underlying cause of racial and ethnic tension in the United States, economic insecurity and competition between groups and individuals for limited jobs and resources.

The bailout of American banks and the stimulus package for American companies have not reversed economic decline for the American people. Unemployment and poverty levels remain unacceptably high. We all risk living in the next Detroit. A true memorial for Trayvon Martin would be a federal full employment bill with guarantees that its benefits would reach into every city and town, every racial and ethnic group, and every family and household in the nation.

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