THE PRESIDENT’S SPEECH: Perspective or Presumption?

RANCHO SANTA FE, Ca., July 23, 2013 – On July 19, 2013, President Obama chose to speak at a Press Conference about the African American community’s possible perspective of the Trayvon Martin tragedy. Almost immediately, those with a strong predisposition to the Left hailed his speech as one of the most important of his career, while those who lean as heavily toward the Right denounced the speech as racially divisive. As is usually the case with extreme viewpoints, each position offers a modicum of truth filtered through a lens of political prejudice. The opportunity to make progress is often lost because bias is frequently communicated with more vigor than rational thought.

Let’s start with the possibility that the President’s speech might be one of the most important of his career. Then, we will discuss what elements might have been divisive or at least not fully reflective of an unbiased position.

President Obama is often mentioned as a great orator. Yet, we often only observe his ability to deliver the ideas and words of others; carefully written scripts that are read from a TelePrompTer that reflect his strategists’ interpretation of how to present favorable poll data as authored by a team of professional writers. We rarely have a glimpse into the President’s own thoughts and feelings.

In that regard, this was an important speech. It provided insight into a more authentic version of the President; a version that exposed his personal experiences and beliefs. He offered a thoughtful, relatively well-balanced perspective of why the African American community (his term) has become so transfixed with the incident that led to the death of Trayvon Martin.

The President opened his remarks with a sincere expression of sympathy to the Martin family and a well-deserved remark about “the incredible grace and dignity with which they’ve dealt with the entire situation.” This is a family that has lost a son and still has called upon individuals to temper their actions and express themselves in a peaceful manner.

Then, the President paid deference to our judicial system. He stated: “The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed that in a case such as this reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury has spoken, that’s how our system works.” It would be difficult to argue with the accuracy of that statement.

President Obama then entered into the main focus of his speech by saying, “…I did want to just talk a little bit about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling.” It was at this point that he began to reflect upon the circumstances of the incident.

The President said, “You know 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.”

From another perspective, if one were to eliminate race as a consideration, any one of us (including the President) could have been Trayvon Martin. We also could have been George Zimmerman. Within the context of our criminal justice system, that is exactly the neutral position that we should assume.

The President continued: “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.”

President Obama then offered some thought-provoking examples. “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. That happens often.”

He then reached a conclusion when he said, “… I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear. The African-American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.”

The President’s conclusion is probably correct. However, should it be the conclusion that is reached, or is it driven by a biased perception?

The President had days to think through the examples he chose. Yet, his examples were delivered only from the perspective of “African American men.” Perhaps it was because he was reflecting upon his personal experience or because he felt that it was more specific to the circumstances of the shooting incident. However, let’s examine his examples from a broader perspective.

The first example involved security profiling at a mall. Consider the following: If an African-American businessman, dressed in a suit and tie were shopping in a mall and another man (pick the ethnicity or race of your choice) was in the same area of the mall dressed in a far less sophisticated way, who would mall security likely follow? Add a few tattoos, an unshaven beard, and clothes that might be due for a wash to the description of the second individual, and watch the profiling begin. You can apply the same scenario to the President’s other examples as well and see an interesting pattern develop.

This is not to ignore or condone profiling that occurs singularly on the basis of race but rather to consider the examples from a broader perspective.  We live in a society that inherently “profiles” individuals based on visual cues. We need to acknowledge it and determine what can be done to bring rational thought to this reality.

The President’s next two examples (i.e., “walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars” and “getting on an elevator and (seeing) a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off”) are not necessarily racially-specific. Almost every man, regardless of race, has experienced these reactions.

Perhaps this occurs because women may have a heightened sense of vulnerability in the isolated presence of unknown men. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s preliminary figures for 2012, approximately 82,000 forcible rapes occurred in our country (or roughly one every 6.5 minutes). Add the 751,131 aggravated assaults and 354,396 robberies that were committed that year as well, and you might begin to build an appreciation for the fact that women intelligently lock their car doors and react with a defensive posture in elevators.

Truth be told, many men follow similar patterns of caution and self-protection (i.e., locking their doors; stepping back in elevators with an increased sense of awareness; subtly checking their wallets in crowds, etc.). As the old adage goes, “It is better to be safe than sorry.”

Proponents of the President will argue that these experiences are more prevalent in the African-American community. Critics of the President will argue that this mindset only further separates the races and promotes additional distrust.

There may be an element of truth in both arguments. However, a different approach would be to acknowledge the experience within the African-American community but to recognize that it is shared in other communities as well. Then, we might be able to begin to engage in a productive discussion of how our social issues can be improved.

A number of detractors of the President claimed that he did not acknowledge the excessive level of crime within the African-American community.  This is not true. The President specifically said: “Now, this isn’t to say that the African-American community is naïve about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system; that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact…”

He then qualified his comment when he continued, “…although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context. They understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history. And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And 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.”

As George Santayana once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In that regard, the President’s reference may have been relevant to provide a historical perspective upon which others may build an understanding of the African-American community’s response. Unfortunately, that assumes that the entire African-American community viewed the incident identically, which it did not.

A segment of the African-American community did not embrace the idea that race was relevant to the incident that led to Trayvon Martin’s death. One may not have gathered that fact from the President’s speech.

President Obama went on to state, “I think the African American community is also not naïve in understanding that, statistically, somebody like Trayvon Martin was statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else. So folks understand the challenges that exist for African American boys. But they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there’s no context for it and that context is being denied. And that all contributes I think to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.”

As the President suggests, “context” is important and it can be frustrating when it is denied. The President made a generic statement about the “challenges” that exist for “African American boys” with whom he has self-identified. Yet, he overcame these challenges, secured an outstanding education, and ultimately became President of the United States. This was a missed opportunity to emphasize what can be achieved when one does not bow to the perception of barriers. Perhaps another of Santayana’s passages is apropos, “A man’s memory may almost become the art of continually varying and misrepresenting his past, according to his interests in the present.”

More importantly, President Obama is a Harvard-educated attorney. He had previously described the nature of the criminal justice system and how it had been applied in the trial of George Zimmerman. It seems irresponsible for him to suggest “that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.”

There are a myriad of facts that, if altered, might have created a different outcome. Race is the least relevant of them.

Consider the irony of how the circumstances may have changed had George Zimmerman simply locked his car door (the typical scenario that the President had described earlier). Correspondingly, what would have happened had Trayvon Martin simply continued to his father’s home?

What makes the actions of the participants far more relevant than their race is that each action represents a choice. One’s race offers no such choice.

Society can learn from tragic incidents such as the shooting of Trayvon Martin to build a better future, or it can merely record them and use them as an excuse when they reoccur in the future. We have an opportunity to examine what went wrong and what better choices could have been made, or we can focus on the participants’ race, which cannot be controlled in the future any more than they could be controlled in this instance.

President Obama went on to discuss the need for a non-violent response. He set an appropriate expectation with regard to any intervention by the Department of Justice (emphasizing the majority of any related legal issues reside at a State or local level as opposed to the Federal level).

The President touched upon the need for all levels of government to work with law enforcement to “reduce the kind of mistrust in the system that sometimes currently exists.” He also encouraged us to examine State and local laws (such as “stand your ground”) to determine “if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than diffuse potential altercations.”

President Obama then called upon “business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes, and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed.”

It will be interesting to see how this suggestion is perceived by the President’s proponents and opponents. He seemed to be distancing himself from a Federal solution, which might appeal to his opponents since they often express their concerns about the size and scope of Government. Conversely, while his comment addressed the plight of “African-American boys,” it ignored the female side of that community as well as the children of all other races and ethnicities who may similarly suffer from the lack of encouragement and opportunity. That may not stand in good stead with those who normally support him.

President Obama concluded his remarks with an acknowledgment that we need to have productive discussions about race and how we might mitigate the impact of prejudice within our society. He also complimented our emerging generations for making better strides in this direction than the generations that preceded them.

So, let’s take the discussion to the next level as suggested by the President. Rather than defaulting to the political position of judging whether his speech provided an appropriate perspective or just fostered a racial presumption, let’s discuss what steps can be taken with or without Government intervention to improve our society. For example:

  • How can we inspire our emerging generations to demonstrate respect for themselves as well as respect for others?
  • How can we teach our emerging generations to make intelligent choices in their lives and accept responsibility for their choices?
  • How can we provide nutrition and housing for those who need assistance while providing a pathway to self-reliance?
  • How can we improve the quality of our education and training programs?
  • How can we create more job opportunities, provide more training, attract more business to the United States, etc. to revitalize the economy?

Please share your ideas, offer your solutions, or engage in a discussion with others in the comment section. Over the ensuing months, we may explore many of these issues in a more focused way, but for now, let’s see what ideas may surface.

We often become enamored with incidents such as the confrontation between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. Perhaps it is because they stimulate such an emotional response at a visceral level. Too often, we do nothing … only to have similar events occur in the future. Let’s begin a discussion that may help break the cycle and underscore the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal.”


T.J. O’Hara is an internationally recognized author, speaker, and strategic consultant in the private and public sectors. In 2012, he emerged as the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States and the first nominee of the Whig Party in over 150 years.

This article first appeared in T.J. O’Hara’s recurring column, A Civil Assessment, in the Communities section of The Washington Times.