President Barack Obama seems to have added fuel to the debate about race relations in the United States.
The first African-American president unexpectedly held a press briefing July 19 to deliver a message to the American people on the then nearly week-old verdict in the Trayvon Martin case.
A neighborhood watch leader in Sanford, Fla., named George Zimmerman fatally shot 17-year-old Martin on Feb. 26, 2012. Zimmerman was tried for second-degree murder and manslaughter. He said the shooting was in self-defense.
The jury announced its “not guilty” verdict July 13.
As the nation’s angst was showing itself in the form of violent riots, racial division and societal disharmony, some may have assumed the president would be calling for unity with his address. Instead, the president launched into an opinionated address that focused specifically on one community that he is a part of rather than the nation as a whole.
After briefly glossing over the legal background of the case, Obama reemployed the same categorical stereotype that the African-American community felt victimized by. Recalling past experiences of his own, Obama said he was speaking on behalf of the African-American community as he described instances of racial prejudice that had affected him, such as being followed in department stores, hearing car doors locking and women clenching purses tighter in the presence of African-American men.
Obama acknowledged the sweeping violence within the African-American community and linked it to “a history” of bias and violence, indirectly pointing fingers and pooling other demographics, such as Caucasian Americans, that were not represented in the Martin case at all. He said that “if a white male teen were involved in the same kind of scenario … the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.”
Such rhetoric does nothing to calm the emotions that lead to further outrage. It certainly does not instill confidence among any skeptics of an American legal system who already believe the system is slanted against them. Division is not leadership and does not breed an atmosphere conducive to agreement. When Obama assumed his role as leader and began to address how policy can ensure equitable treatment, he had already stirred emotions and stifled pathways to commonality and agreement.
I do not fault the president, who is the author of a race-relations book (“Dreams From My Father”) and a one-time civil rights attorney, for interjecting his thoughts on the subject. A man of his position, who possesses such deeply seeded racial interest and significance, would surely have a comment on a situation like the one brought about by the Zimmerman verdict.
Obama’s primary job as president, however, is to ensure a peaceful, harmonious society that unifies, rather than divides, a spirit of citizenship, equality and patriotism to ensure a more perfect union.
African-Americans, Hispanics and Caucasians needed a message to ease transitory strained tensions. We all needed a message that reflected upon a history of hurdles overcome and obstacles cleared. A message that would resonate to connect qualities that bring us together and generate trust, rather than drive us apart and induce fear.
The American people were not delivered such a message, and unfortunately, Friday’s address did more to irritate racial scars than to heal them.