All across the country people young, old, black, brown, and white have gathered in memory of Trayvon Martin. The movement, with the rallying cry "I am Trayvon Martin," has already prompted both the US Department of Justice and the FBI to begin civil rights investigations. Advocates continue to demand definitive justice calling for the arrest of George Zimmerman, the shooter who alleges that he shot Trayvon in self-defense, and many have begun to question the notorious "Stand Your Ground Law" that is upheld in 21 states, including Florida where Trayvon was shot.
Last week, after a month of mounting discontent due to his lack of response, President Barack Obama made mention of Trayvon's murder. The question posed by a journalist was one centered on the significance of race and its role in Martin's death. Obama acknowledged that his remarks could possibly impact the investigation carried out by the Department of Justice, a department under his auspices. As a result, he began his reply carefully by noting, "I've got to be careful about my statements to make sure that we're not impairing any investigation that's taking place right now."
Obama went on to express compassion for Martin's family and noted that his death is a tragedy warranting serious "soul searching" and an "investigation." Most notably, however, he stated, "If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon." A lawyer by training, Obama's words are often judiciously poetic. In this case, Obama's words seem to have been cautiously chosen to illuminate the specter of race in this particular case even while staying clear of language that spoke to the significance of race in the Martin case and America's ever-percolating race problem. Indeed, his politically savvy retort and seeming link to the grief of Martin's family negated any straightforward mention about the implications of race, bias, and suspicion in Martin's murder.
Obama's statement is indicative of the tone of his presidency -- one that characterizes him as a politician quite comfortable being positioned in the "middle." Instead of making a personal reference to the case by iterating the first-person, "I am Trayvon Martin," he depersonalizes his reaction by making reference to a hypothetical, third-person claim. Yet, readers are confronted with a different, more personal and contextualized Obama in Dreams of my Father, Obama's autobiography. He assertively discusses his search for identity and how his discovery of overt racism parallels his journey into adulthood. Given that, it would have made sense if Obama had straightforwardly said, "I am Trayvon Martin" or at least "I was Trayvon Martin as a youth." But it seems the stakes are too high for a Black president who decides to speak about race even though the president has been the victim of unwarranted xenophobic, Islamophobic, and racist suspicion. During his campaign, many Americans believed Obama to be an undercover terrorist because of his father's Muslim ancestry (even though his father was an atheist) and the "birthers movement" passionately believed the President's citizenship to be illegal forcing the president to actually supply his birth certificate to the American public.
In contrast, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed Congress in 1965 and at the conclusion of his speech he offered the rhetorically loaded phrase "And We Shall Overcome" in an effort to pass the Voting Rights Act. Despite the deep social contention and political repercussions, Johnson was able to embrace a movement publically related to the country's race problem and racist hatred. Thirty years later, in an address at The University of Texas at Austin on October 16, 1995, President Bill Clinton boldly addressed the roots of what he named "white fear" when he stated the following:
On the other hand, blacks must understand and acknowledge the roots of white fear in America. There is a legitimate fear of the violence that is too prevalent in our urban areas; and often by experience or at least what people see on the news at night, violence for those white people too often has a black face...
It isn't racist for a parent to pull his or her child close when walking through a high-crime neighborhood, or to wish to stay away from neighborhoods where innocent children can be shot in school or standing at bus stops by thugs driving by with assault weapons or toting handguns like old west desperados...
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