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The President's Words

by Jerry Bader

I watched live much of President Obama's surprise statement from the White House briefing room Friday afternoon regarding the aftermath of George Zimmerman's acquittal on charges related to Trayvon Martin's death. I haven't had a chance to write on it and I've read very little commentary about it. I did see a piece on Hot Air that shares my opinion that the President was trying to gently let down those who were hoping to see Federal Civil Rights Violation charges against Zimmerman.But I want to focus in on the President's comments on race relations.

First, he again personalized the case, this time saying Trayvon Martin could have been him 35 years ago. Further, Mr. Obama described how he has felt being watched with suspicion in stores and hearing car doors click as he approaches. There may be those who will doubt these experiences are real.  I do not doubt them. And he said many blacks have their opinion of what happened in Florida shaped by those personal experiences:

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. 

Mr. Obama then did something that few, if any, other black leaders have been willing to do. He admitted that the black community has a crime problem disproportionate to its population. This is a big step, but not as big as it could have been because of the way in which he stated it:

Now, this isn't to say that the African American community is naïve 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.

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. 

So President Obama believes that the black community is disproportionately violent because of a history of racism in the United States. As I said, even admitting that fact is progress, but very muted progress when you don't blame it on reality; the black family structure has disintegrated since the mid-sixties. A Wall Street Journal columnist was accused this week of making up a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from 1961, where King pointed to the fact that St. Louis blacks made up 10% of that cities population but were responsible for more than half the crime. King did say that and he said the black community had to face this morality problem. When Dr. King said that the black nuclear family was rock solid, even more so than the white nuclear family. Divorce and out of wedlock birth rates were both extremely low.

King said that 52 years ago. That means we're 52 more years removed from the history of which the President speaks. And the black community is far more violent now than it was then. Yet he blames this on America's racist past and not the black community's dysfunctional present? Deeply disappointing. And let's revisit this quote:

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.  

That very long sentence is at the heart of the strained race relations we have today. President Obama acknowledges a disproportionate crime rate among blacks, but doesn't think it's their fault and doesn't think it's an "excuse" for increased vigilance in at least some instances when a young black man approaches. Here's the issue the President has unearthed: given the high crime rate among blacks, is it  always irrational to have some heightened sense of vigilance when you're approached by some young black men in some neighborhoods? By acknowledging the high black crime rate, the answer would seem to be no. But the President is right; it's unfair to judge all blacks because of this high crime rate. So what's reasonable vigilance?  What's irrational fear?  And given the high crime rate is either necessarily racism every time it's present? 

Fearing for your safety every time you see a black person is irrational and it's racism. But contrary to the President's dismissive comments about crime statistics, sometimes such vigilance is warranted. Getting whites to figure out where that line is isn't the way to fix this problem. Getting blacks, including black leaders like President Obama, to admit the real reason for high black crime rates and dealing with that reason is.