When I first saw the news of President Obama’s press briefing about the Trayvon Martin ruling (on Twitter, of course), my first impulse was to tweet the money quote, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” and leave it at that. Another moment’s reflection and I realized my reaction was a little too complicated – and that that complication was too important – to simply leave it at that.
I listened to all seventeen and a half minutes of the briefing. Either Obama is an even more masterful actor and politician than I imagined, or he was speaking about race from a personal point of view with a frankness and a rawness that I never would have expected from a president, even a black one. It’s probably both. Anyone who’s paid attention to the actual content of Obama’s public statements knows, and has known since the 2008 campaign if not before, that he is in practice a centrist, a cautious one, and he rarely presses the issue of race explicitly, even when it would be appropriate. It often pains me how careful he is to avoid unsettling white folks.
And yet here he was, not only acknowledging the racial context of the Trayvon Martin shooting, but connecting it directly to his own experiences as a black man in America.
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.
The shock of seeing a president explaining the black experience to non-black Americans felt historic. Hearing the president call out the institutional racism of the legal system was indescribable.
And 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.
Would that were the whole of the story and that we could simply honor the loss of Trayvon Martin by using this conversation to move the country forward on its painful trajectory towards redemption. It’s not, and we can’t.
In the fall of 2011 (just months before Zimmerman shot Martin), on the orders of President Obama, Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year old son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki were killed in separate strikes by “unmanned aircraft,” or as we have come to call them familiarly, drones.
Like the Trayvon Martin killing, the Awlaki killings also exist in a context, the context of the US government hijacking the political affairs of Arab countries and killing Muslims when they get too — dare I say it — uppity. What are drone strikes if not a unilateral, illegal, global implementation of “stand your ground”? Zimmerman claimed he felt threatened. We claim we feel threatened, and we expect our government to be our gun.
Just as the history of white racism in America asserts itself in our reactions to the Trayvon Martin ruling, the history of American imperialism asserts itself in our reactions to the Awlaki killings. Let there be no elision. For brown people in America, George Zimmerman is the white devil who murdered Trayvon Martin. For brown people in the rest of the world, Barack Obama is the American devil who murdered al-Awlaki and his son.
And for what? Between 2006 and 2011 the actual chances of being killed by a terrorist for any individual American were about one in 20 million:
This compares to the annual risk of dying in a car accident of 1 in 19,000; drowning in a bathtub at 1 in 800,000; dying in a building fire at 1 in 99,000; or being struck by lightning at 1 in 5,500,000.
But the political risk of being “soft on terrorism,” or even perceived that way, is enormous. The risk of being too aggressive is comparatively miniscule – at least it was pre-Snowden, but even after Snowden’s revelations the political math remains largely unchanged.
It’s easy and costs nothing to adhere to one’s principles from the sidelines, but can I say that in Obama’s shoes I wouldn’t have authorized political assassinations, that I wouldn’t have made the pragmatic choice in favor of security theater and accepted the costs in resources and lives? Would you want to be the president who let Americans be killed on your watch because you didn’t have the grit to kill a few Arabs half a world away just in case (even if in this case the “Arabs” happened to be Americans)?
After Obama’s re-election in the Fall, I wrote about how important it was to have a president who was brown, like me. But “like me” also has a dark side. Among other things, it means I am inclined to give him a pass where I should not. On Real Time with Bill Maher, Cornel West quite rightly observed that liberals are too reluctant to criticize Obama on the very same issues for which they excoriated George W. Bush. He called this double standard “morally bankrupt,” and it is, and I am guilty of it, but for me it’s worse than that. Trayvon Martin could have been Obama thirty years ago. Anwar al-Awlaki could have been me now. We were both born in the same year. We were both born in America. We are both brown in such a way that many Americans would see no distinction between us. If I had a son, he’d look like Abdulrahman.
Worse yet, Obama should know better. Rightly or wrongly, we can dismiss George W. Bush as a sheltered, rich, white boy who never experienced an adverse social context in his life. Obama has no such excuse. And yet, Obama is not merely good or bad. One doesn’t negate the other. We are not what we are. We are what we do. And we do some complicated, contradictory, irreconcilable things. Having to make sense of the many Obamas reminds us not merely of the better angels of our nature but also the baser demons.
We may never get Nixon and Haldeman’s missing 18 minutes, but this briefing, at least, is 17 presidential minutes that have been missing from our public conversation about race for decades. I only wish that Obama, and the rest of us, could be as honest and direct about the other no less corrosive issues that undermine our values as a nation and a people.