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THE RAGE OF A PRIVILEGED CLASS

Here is an excerpt from the comments of President Obama on the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case which was decided on 7/13/13. My comments are in boldface. 

(After a few introductory remarks and recognition of the parents of Trayvon Martin and what they are going through. The president continued thusly.)

The second thing I want to say is to reiterate what I said on Sunday, which is there’s going to be a lot of arguments about the legal issues in the case — I’ll let all the legal analysts and talking heads address those issues. The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed that in a case such as this reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury has spoken, that’s how our system works. But I did want to just talk a little bit about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling.

(There is no doubt that the legal system worked properly. The matter of Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence has been settled. . . That being said let us turn to how people are feeling.)

You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.

(What happened to Trayvon Martin could have happened to me.)

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. 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.

(He identifies with many of the very negative experiences of Black men, save one.)

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.

(African Americans are profiled by the criminal justice system.)

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.

(He acknowledges that there is crime in the Black community, but a mitigating factor is the history of America, its “very violent past” He thus mentions slavery without mentioning slavery.) 

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.

(Claims that Black boys are supposedly more violence prone cannot be used as an excuse to treat Black youths differently.)

I think the African American community is also not naïve in understanding that, statistically, somebody like Trayvon Martin was statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else. So folks understand the challenges that exist for African American boys. But they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there’s no context for it and that context is being denied. 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.

(He said, yes there is violence in the Black community but all Black youth must not be judged as dangerous and thus subject to unwarranted attack.)

Now, the question for me at least, and I think for a lot of folks, is where do we take this? How do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction? 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.

(He cautioned people not to become violent. He suggests that there are other things “we” might be able to do. Continuing demonstrations and protests are understandable and expected, but violence isn’t, that would dishonor what happened to Trayvon and his family.)

But beyond protests or vigils, the question is, are there some concrete things that we might be able to do. 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.

(The Attorney General will not be bringing a case against Zimmerman for violating Trayvon’s civil rights.)

That doesn’t mean, though, that as a nation we can’t do some things that I think would be productive. So let me just give a couple of specifics that I’m still bouncing around with my staff so we’re not rolling out some five-point plan, but some areas where I think all of us could potentially focus. . .

(So here is what we can do.)

These comments were made 7/19/14, six days after the verdict was delivered, at which point, even his most ardent supporters were beginning to wonder at his continued silence. Little of the speech dealt with the criminal justice system, focusing instead on what people were feeling, the high emotions after the verdict. In sympathizing and identifying with those feelings, he identified a number of situations Black men commonly face, but he was careful not to mention the police. He acknowledged that Blacks are treated unfairly by the criminal justice system, but said nothing about trying to change any laws or using his power to change the manner in which laws are enforced, though he is the highest law enforcement officer in the land. And he drew a clear line in the sand as to what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in the wake of the verdict. (Note, not in a threatening manner but in the sense that it would dishonor the memory of Trayvon, a careful, a very careful wording. To have spoken harshly to the Black community, threatening to put on his chief law enforcement officer hat, might have been counterproductive.)

His delivery was halting, hesitant, controlled, rarely looking at the camera. Was it anger, or fear that looking at the camera as he spoke might make his words seem more vehement than he intended, or both? He thread a needle that day. Many in the Black community, as well as others, were verging on violence, and there were some outbursts, little reported in the media. There were also many in the country still angry over his critique of the Cambridge, Massachusetts police, after Black Harvard professor Harvard Henry Lewis Gates was arrested at his home. Obama’s comments did not elicit protest from whites, and the anger in the community largely dissipated after the speech. Though presented at the time as some sort of off the cuff remarks, rest assured they were anything but.

Soon after Barack Obama’s first inauguration Ellis Cose said, “the fact of his presidency renders absurd the argument that blacks are barred from playing at the highest level.”  Perhaps, but was the only way an African American could ascend to the highest office in the land was if they possessed an implicit understanding that they were not, under any circumstance, to use their new found power to meaningfully help Black America. And African Americans, it would seem, support that unwritten contract as evidenced by the president’s, overwhelming, unflagging support in the Black community.

Nonetheless, is restraint taking its toll? Was his subdued, conflicted delivery partly an expression of what Ellis Cose, writing in 1993, had earlier called suppressed anger “the rage of a privileged class” in his book of the same name?  In the president’s carefully worded expression of the indignities all Black males are compelled to put up with, experiencing and reacting to one himself? Because Black men are so often perceived as angry, violent and dangerous, many go out of their way to give the opposite impression, was he doing the same? And so was President Obama, essentially, delivering a carefully nuanced rendition of the blues? (Arthur Lewin, AfricaUnlimited.com)

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