It was not the setting one would have expected, and the tone was mostly somber and reflective, the look on President Obama’s face often saddened and pained. There were no moral injunctions of the sort that President John F. Kennedy issued in June 1963 when, responding to the racial violence in Birmingham, Alabama, he spoke of our responsibilities as American citizens and of the country’s founding principles in calling for national Civil Rights legislation. Nor was there the sweeping historical panorama and rhetorical flourishes—“we SHALL overcome”—that flowed through President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 speech calling for the passage of a Voting Rights Act. Nor was there any demand for new federal initiatives, political conversations, moral outrage, or repentance.
The setting was not the Oval Office that Kennedy chose, nor was it the floor of a packed House of Representatives where Johnson spoke; it was, instead, the small White House briefing room, with a few empty chairs. No alert had been delivered, no head’s up to the media. There was none of the anticipation that had accompanied Obama’s powerful speech on race in the spring of 2008, when his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination was imperiled by his association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright; no reason to think that he would make what turned into a major address.
Yet, in fewer than 18 minutes, the president may have offered the most important perspective on race and the African-American experience that any political figure has ever managed to do. And it is a perspective that only a person like he could have offered. To be sure, the president was cautious. He refused to criticize the conduct of the trial, the strategies of either the prosecution or defense, or the jury’s verdict. He would leave those matters to the “legal analysts” and “talking heads.” Instead, as a historian would, he wanted to talk about “the context,” and immediately cut to the heart of the awful incident and its meaning. “Trayvon Martin,” he said matter-of-factly, “could have been me 35 years ago.”
The setting was not the Oval Office that Kennedy chose, nor was it the floor of a packed House of Representatives where Johnson spoke.
The president wasn’t grandstanding or over-dramatizing. He had previously noted that Trayvon Martin could have been his own son, and left it at that. Race and its pernicious entanglements are not subjects he has relished discussing, and he’s been upbraided during his presidency—justly I think—for not saying or doing enough about them. In this, he is little different from his many predecessors. But now he felt compelled to speak, and rather than referring to universal truths or the principles that united us as Americans—the usual things presidents do at times of crisis or division—he decided to explain what, in the post–Civil Rights era, the lived experience of race was like and why African Americans could find the Martin case so disturbing.
It’s not an easy thing to do. Many Americans, especially white Americans, would like to believe that our nightmare of slavery and racism is now in the past, that the injustices of oppression and discrimination have been rectified, that the ideal of inclusion has been inscribed in law, and that a formally color-blind society has come into being. After all, a man of African descent has been elected—twice—to the presidency, and if the Civil Rights era has accomplished anything, it is to shape a public opinion that generally frowns on the notion that “race” can be an important factor in social and political behavior. Small wonder that one of the jurors in the Martin case denied that “race” ever came up in the jury deliberations.
But what President Obama clearly wants us to recognize is that race and racism have histories in at least a double sense: both in the ways in which they are marked and in the ways in which they are carried and transmitted culturally. In today’s America, race and racism are no longer about explicit laws and boundaries, about official choreographies of interaction, about who, quite simply, has to “sit in the back of the bus,” can’t be served at a lunch counter, can’t attend a school, or can’t register to vote.
They are, instead, about who is to be regarded as a threat, held in suspicion, questioned as to their intelligence, doubted as to their honesty, subject to harassment, devalued as a human being, and likely to be incarcerated: regardless of which side of the economic tracks one is from. “There are few African American men in this country … [and] that includes me,” the president maintained, “who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping … [or] of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars … [or] of getting on an elevator [and have] a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.”
Indeed, the president directly questioned how supposedly “color-blind” laws, and thus the criminal justice system, worked. “I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have “stood his ground” on that sidewalk … been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman … because he felt threatened?” He doubted that the answer to the question was anything better than “ambiguous.”
Race and racism are now about who is to be regarded as a threat, held in suspicion, questioned as to their intelligence.
These questions and experiences, the president argued, tap into deep reservoirs of personal and collective history. Like William Faulkner who famously wrote, “the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past,” he reminds us of history’s omnipresence and of the burdens it can impose. African Americans are a diverse lot but what has made them a “community,” from slavery to this day, is a shared encounter with the violence, repression, exclusion, and humiliation that has been central to America’s history of race. And continues to be. Thus, the many African Americans who took to the streets, voicing their outrage and protest, this past week.
The president expressed little optimism, or hope, as to what might be done or what we may have learned from the Martin case, other than to note that young folk seem far less encumbered by the past and its associations when it comes to race. Some may feel that he missed an opportunity to exercise moral and political leadership besides suggesting that “stand your ground laws” be reconsidered. But implicit in his argument is a very sobering message to us all: that race in its poisonousness thrives on social ignorance, on our limited knowledge about how people unlike us live, work, dream, and struggle for their futures, on representations that have to substitute for direct experience. And so long as we live in a society that, in some respects, is even more segregated than when Presidents Kennedy and Johnson spoke, Trayvon Martins will long be haunting us.
Steven Hahn is the Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania.