CALIFORNIA, July 22, 2013 — One of the unmistakable points from President Obama’s recent speech on race in America is that, unlike his lamentably myopic political opponents, Obama recognizes Trayvon Martin’s historical and political importance.
Obama is aware of the fact that the shooting death of Trayvon Martin will be a significant part of both his story as president and of 21st century civil rights history. Given that Obama frivolously comments on many different news stories, he knew that he cannot, as the first black President of the United States, be visibly absent on an issue that has caused so much pain in the black community.
Obama understands that his rise to the White House does not completely quash all negative experiences for black males. Addressing this burning racial issue and empathizing with the family of Trayvon Martin was crucial for Obama’s legacy.
Obama also understood that, given the reaction to his “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” remark, whatever further comments he would make on the topic would aggravate his critics.
The reason conservatives erupted in unbridled fury about Obama’s speech is because he not only humanized, but also gave presidential prestige to, the legacy of a dead black boy that they thought they had successfully anathematized and tossed in the trash. With one speech, Obama singlehandedly trivialized the Zimmerman cheerleaders and dismissed all of their rhetoric. Obama made it clear that Martin had rights. The way Obama barely mentioned the Zimmerman’s name during his speech but used his office to elevate Martin was immensely powerful and spoke volumes.
Obama has been heavily criticized for being the first black president on paper, but not addressing the concerns of the black community with the kind of urgency that many would have expected from the first black president of the United States. Moreover, Obama’s presidency has not been particularly friendly to African-American economics. For example, black unemployment is at an astronomically high 13.7 percent for July 2013. This can be blamed directly on Obama’s obstinate ideological commitment to failed left-wing approaches to economic growth.
Given this record, the least Obama could do was start a legitimate conversation on race, which he did with his Trayvon speech. Far from being a divisive speech that demonstrated black rage, as his detractors outlandishly assert, Obama’s speech was incredibly balanced. He not only spoke about the range of subtle to overt racism that many black American males still experience, but he also spoke about the elevated black crime rate among young black males, which some people desperately cling to in order to justify their malevolent detestation of blacks.
The fact that many on the right attacked his speech, which was perfectly balanced both in tone and message, shows that Obama could say anything and his dishonest political detractors would find an intellectually flimsy reason to attack him.
Fundamentally, with this speech on Trayvon and race, Obama has trumped the political right. He successfully contrasted his vision on issues of race with the right’s embarrassing racial myopia. Obama, who has treated the black community with an offensive aloofness during his tenure as president, knows when to step in to protect his legacy. By contrast, obtuse conservative pundits are too concerned with cheerleading for Zimmerman to carefully evaluate the social climate and understand that this tragedy has serious historical and political implications.
The leaders in the conservative movement do not seem to care about conservatives’ civil rights reputation going forward, which is why very few prominent thought leaders on the right considered the utterly disastrous implications of being on the record as eagerly championing Zimmerman.
This tragedy could have been a bridge that the right used to show concern for the black community and understanding of black plight — something that conservatives are notorious for lacking. Rather than using the tragedy as an outreach opportunity, right-wingers decided it was best to use it as an opportunity to confirm all of the worst stereotypical characteristics about the political right, those being ferocious wickedness, outright racism, and sheer hypocrisy.
Conceivably, Obama comprehends that his tenure as president has not been remarkable for black people as far as domestic policy is concerned, but he understands that his being twice elected to the highest office in the land as a black man makes him an African American cultural icon who cannot be supplanted.
Obama realizes that strong leadership on issues of race, particularly at a time of racial distress, can save his otherwise lackluster presidency from the harsh lens of history.
Conservatives, too, need to get it right on racial issues in order to survive the impending demographic shift. However, rather than using the Trayvon tragedy as an opportunity to reach out to blacks and show sincere empathy, which would make blacks more open to aligning with the American right on policy, conservatives decided to trash Martin simply because Obama and Al Sharpton embraced him.
Clearly, Obama wins big on this issue, and history will remember his stellar handling of this case kindly. Conservatives are the big losers. The despicable racism and astonishing tone deafness that the right displayed during this case will be an indelible historical stain on the conservative movement. If conservative leaders would put down their pom-poms for a second and take a break from performing their Zimmerman cheerleading routines, that truth would be abundantly clear to them.
Chidike Okeem is a writer. Born in Nigeria, raised in London, England, and now living in California, he writes about race, culture, religion, and politics. You can find contact information and read more of his writings at www.voiceofchid.com.
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