Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The President's Race Speech

David Brooks of the New York Times on Sunday stated that Mr. Obama's speech on race last week was one of the highlights of his presidency. In a presidency bereft of genuine highlights as has been Mr. Obama's I'm not sure how much of a compliment Mr. Brooks is bestowing. At any rate, assuming he meant it as high praise, I wish to register my dissent. I thought the speech was awful, and I shall explain why.

The Washington Post has a transcript. Here are Mr. Obama's main points with my thoughts on them interpolated:
First of all, I want to make sure that, once again, I send my thoughts and prayers, as well as Michelle’s, to the family of Trayvon Martin, and to remark on the incredible grace and dignity with which they’ve dealt with the entire situation. I can only imagine what they’re going through, and it’s remarkable how they’ve handled it.
What about Mr. Zimmerman's family, Mr. President? Their son has been repeatedly threatened with death as have they. He's in hiding and has to wear a kevlar vest when he ventures out. The parents' address has been made public by Roseanne Barr and Spike Lee, and they receive harassing and threatening calls. I can only imagine what they must they be going through, especially as they watch their son, whom they love, made the object of national hate and vilification. Why isn't the president of all Americans concerned about them? Why doesn't he call on all Americans to stop the hate?
Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. 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.
Surely Mr. Obama doesn't expect us to believe that he would have been suspended from school several times for fighting, would have been found with a cache of jewelry in his possession that wasn't his, would have emulated the thug lifestyle, would have punched a neighborhood watch volunteer to the ground, jumped on him and pounded him with his fists? What is it about Trayvon Martin, aside from his drug use, that Mr. Obama thinks could have been him?
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.
This sort of demagoguery is simply beneath the dignity of the office the president. He's subtly asserting that Trayvon Martin was racially profiled even though almost everyone associated with the case insists that race had nothing to do with the events of that night. The prosecutors said it had nothing to do with it, Martin's parents said it had nothing to do with it, Rachel Jeantel said that she and Martin concluded, not that Zimmerman was profiling Martin, but that he was a homosexual predator, and no evidence has been adduced to indicate that race was at all a factor, at least in Zimmerman's mind. For Mr. Obama to poison the racial atmosphere surrounding this trial even further with this reckless remark is very disappointing.

But even if he's right, even if people do profile blacks, maybe we should ask why that is? Could the fact, if it is a fact, that there few African-American men who haven't been profiled have anything to do with the fact that there are few African American men who haven't spent time in police custody or jail for one reason or another? Could it be that non-blacks are fearful of African-American men for a reason? The same reason, perhaps, that caused Jesse Jackson to admit that when he hears a group of youths following him he's relieved when he turns and sees that they're white?

Perhaps the reason white people lock their doors when they see young black men approach is in fact the same reason that black people lock their doors when they see young black men approach. Here's a true story: Last March in Brunswick, Georgia a young white mother pushing her 13 month old child in a stroller was accosted by a 17 year-old black thug. Here's what happened:
"A boy approached me and told me he wanted my money, and I told him I didn't have any money. And he said, 'Give me your money or I'm going to kill you and I'm going to shoot your baby and kill your baby,' and I said, 'I don't have any money,' and 'Don't kill my baby.'"

The boy tried to grab her purse and opened fire when she tried to tell him she had no money, West [the young mother] said, with the shot grazing her head. She said the boy then shot her in the leg.

West continued, "And then, all of a sudden, he walked over and he shot my baby in the face."
The baby is dead. I wonder if Mr. Obama might entertain the notion for a moment that stories like that have something to do with why those locks click.
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.
Here Mr. Obama seems to be saying that black people don't interpret cases like this based on the evidence. Rather than examine the evidence to see whether it justifies the verdict, he's suggesting, what they do is simply consult the history of racial disparity and conclude that racism is the explanation for any verdict that fails to satisfy their hopes.

This is either a condescending insult to the intelligence of black people or it's true, in which case it belies a fundamental simplemindedness on the part of the African-American community. Is this what the president really wished to imply?
Now, this isn't to say that the African American community is na├»ve 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 — 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.
This is nonsense. Black crime has skyrocketed since the 1970s. Prior to that black communities experienced rates of violence much below what they are today. There is indeed a historical context for black crime, but it's not what the President wants us to believe it is. Violence in the black community has risen in almost direct proportion to black fatherlessness, and black fatherlessness is largely a result of the liberal assault on religion, the family, and the emergence of a welfare system that fosters dependency, renders fathers superfluous, and reduces men to little more than sperm donors.
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.
What does this even mean? Is he saying that Martin was killed because he was black? Is he saying the jury acquitted Zimmerman because those six women were all racially biased in favor of the lightest-skinned of the two parties involved? The media should insist that the President clarify what he means by this.
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.
I guess this is as close as the president is going to tread to declaring that the jury was racist. How else can we understand the meaning of his words? He's telling us that had the races been reversed it would have been more likely that the shooter would have been found guilty. This is just a roundabout way of asserting that the jury was racially motivated. His words are as insulting to the women who served on that panel as they are disgraceful.
I think it’s understandable that there have been demonstrations and vigils and protests, and some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through, as long as it remains nonviolent. If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family. But beyond protests or vigils, the question is, are there some concrete things that we might be able to do.
The Martin family attorney ridiculously compared Trayvon Martin, a wannabe thug, with Emmit Till and Medgar Evers. To the extent that Mr. Obama believes Martin deserves to be honored he's making a similarly absurd comparison. The President seems to imply that Martin was just an innocent bystander in the events of that fateful evening. He's ignoring what all the evidence either showed or didn't refute, that Martin initiated the violence and that Zimmerman was defending his life.
I know that Eric Holder is reviewing what happened down there, but I think it’s important for people to have some clear expectations here. Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government, the criminal code. And law enforcement is traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.
What the President here seems to be saying is that, despite all that he's implied about the injustice of the trial, despite his subtle admission that this was in his mind a racially motivated hate crime, there's no evidence to support that judgment and therefore those who are getting their hopes up that Zimmerman will still swing from a tree should realize that there's only so much that can be done when the whole nation is watching and you have to follow the law.

The rest of his speech is a discussion of a couple of proposals that actually have nothing to do with the Zimmerman/Martin case. He calls, for instance, for a reevaluation of stand your ground laws, but misleads his listeners as to what stand your ground laws are.
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.
The answer is not ambiguous and the President is embarrassing himself in the eyes of everyone who has a particle of intelligence. The stand your ground laws do not grant a person the right to shoot someone who is following them in a car. They instead release a citizen from a duty to flee from an assailant, a freedom which, in the 31 states which have it, acknowledges the law-abiding citizen's right to be where he is and the right essentially to not be a coward. Martin had the right not to flee from Zimmerman, and he had the right to defend himself had Zimmerman assaulted him. He did not have the right to initiate an assault on Zimmerman, which is what he did. To the extent that Mr. Obama keeps obfuscating this point he's behaving like a demagogue.
[W]e need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African American boys. And this is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about. There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?
Why is it primarily the task of the country to show that it cares about these kids? They don't need to know that they're cared for by an abstraction like "the country", what they need most of all is to be shown that their fathers care about them. They need to be shown that their fathers love them enough to marry their mothers and to stay married to them, to get a job, even if it's only menial, and to set a positive example for their sons as to what a man should be. That'd be a great start, but Mr. Obama thinks this is the government's job, which is the sort of thinking that has caused the tragic predicament of so many black boys in the first place.
And let me just leave you with a final thought that, as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn’t mean we’re in a post-racial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But when I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I seem them interact, they’re better than we are — they’re better than we were — on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.
This is the best part of his speech and I'm glad he said it. It's a fact that the left too often ignores or suppresses.
And so we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues. And those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature, as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions.
Precisely so, but heightening divisions is exactly what he did with this speech.

What he apparently doesn't understand is that he had an opportunity, a historic opportunity, to use this tragedy to bring us together, but instead, deliberately or not, by impugning both Zimmerman and the jury, by talking about interracial violence as if it's a "white" problem, he gave the wedge a couple of more whacks with the sledgehammer, drove it deeper, and split us further apart.

I wonder, had the races of Martin and Zimmerman been reversed and the President been white and said these things, whether the media would have praised this speech or whether it would have been seen as at best insensitive and at worst racially incendiary.