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...
Are race and racism topics that can only be publicly discussed by some US Presidents? If so, which? And, why? Despite the fact that Obama offered a, now well-regarded, speech on race as a candidate, a direct interrogation of race and racism is something that Obama may never be able to offer as a Black president.
Obama's presidency has been burdened with the task of focusing policy on the imagined monolith, otherwise known as, the "American citizen" and not the varied concerns of Black, White, or Brown American citizens. Racial context seems to be rendered irrelevant in the case of Obama. In fact, his success as a president has depended on him not being politically Black. Such "success," which might be expedient for politicos like Newt Gingrich, who just happen to name Obama's remarks on Trayvon Martin's killing "disgraceful," is understood as political failure by some Black voters.
For example, Tavis Smiley and Cornell West led a tour in reproach to policies orchestrated under the Obama administration. Although the tour was publicized as a way to bring attention to the administration's lack of progressive policies towards poverty, many understood the tour to be more focused on the President's dearth of policies focused on Black and Brown Americans. The tour was created following President Obama's refusal to attend Smiley's annual State of the Black Union Conference during his presidential campaign. Is it necessary to honor Black politics or culture if you identify as Black? Does a Black president need to openly recognize causes fundamental to black people?
If Presidents Johnson and Clinton are any indication, it seems that race and the ability of Presidents to address issues specifically germane to White and Black citizens in America are par for the normal Presidential course. And that may have something to do with the fact that they are White Presidents. To be White, then, might be understood by some to be non-raced, a point brilliantly articulated by Simon Balton in his article, "Race and Non-Race on the High Court." In other words, those Presidents who are allowed to talk about race issues in America without rebuke seems to be those who aren't implicated in race talk. It seems that White presidents have tended to exist somewhere beyond the racial logics that they espouse. To put it another way, White Presidents might very well be understood as taking an "objective" and, therefore, "rational' approach when engaging race and racism, while Obama is seemingly cast as someone who is subjective and emotional because he is raced, Black.