No other president could have said what Obama said on Friday afternoon with similar authority. What was striking to me was the tone of acute sadness – a tone others could have used after what was, under any interpretation, a tragedy. And then there was the fact that this first black president, even after such a polarizing incident, spoke to all Americans, white and black. I cannot fathom how some on the knee-jerk right could have seen this as a divisive set of comments – just as I cannot quite fathom how this president is capable of controlling and channeling his own emotions.
What he tried to do was explain to white America how it must feel like to be perpetually deemed guilty before being proven innocent just because of your age, gender and the color of your skin. He didn’t deny the facts of the Martin case; he didn’t dispute the jury’s decision; he didn’t dismiss legitimate issues like the toll of gun violence within the young black male population – but he did insist that we all understand the context, the history, and the reason, behind the anguish and anger of many African-American men and parents and boys. What he was asking for was some mutual empathy.
It was also, after Lincoln, an attempt to appeal to reason over the kind of honor-driven emotion that causes so much death in this country. Lincoln described the mindset behind “Stand Your Ground” laws this way:
the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts.
And his response was, well, professorial:
Reason, cold calculating unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense.
Now see how carefully Obama makes the same point:
And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these “stand your ground” laws, 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.
It was not a searing call for a new racial era. It was not a bleak view of race relations. “Things are getting better,” he recognized (and sees, as I do, an enormous amount of hope in the millennial generation and beyond). But it was nonetheless moving precisely because it was so lacking in bombast and certainty and sound-bites. He was an adult, speaking to adults – something now very hard to find on cable news. He insisted on context, history and memory. He tried to explain – in a simple, uncondescending way – one shared communal experience to another, and the sheer challenge of affirming co-existence:
Isn’t it, for them, for us, a gargantuan task not to imagine that everyone is imagining us as criminal? A nearly impossible task?
One day, when the absurd hatred of this man dissipates a little, perhaps we’ll appreciate the restraint with which he speaks on topics of such inflammatory potential. In a polarized America, this mixed-race president is doing what he can to foster mutual understanding and respect – by lowering the temperature, rather than raising it.