Obama’s response to the verdict was right


Though it’s compellingly argued and passionately felt, I disagree with the assessment of my colleague at The Root, Keli Goff, that President Barack Obama’s statement about Saturday’s George Zimmerman verdict was disappointing or somehow offensive. After all, everyone has a part to play in this tragedy, and Obama’s is unlike anyone else’s.

While he’s the most visible — and powerful — black man in the world, he’s also head of government and head of state. And in those dual capacities, he ought to — and has — spoken out in support of Trayvon Martin’s family. But it’s also his job to represent the American system, with all its attendant flaws.

That’s the difference between being a black politician and a president who’s also black.

Keli’s completely right that after Trayvon’s death, America needs to have an “honest conversation about why his death happened.” But while the president can start that conversation, he can’t tell people what to think.

Obama’s toed a fine — even cautious — line up to now when it comes to this tragedy. Unlike talk-show hosts and late-night Twitter denizens, the weight of his words always has lasting impact. He’s walked that line because that’s what’s been called for.

But no matter how demoralizing the trial’s result was, President Obama — the nation’s dad, if you will — doesn’t have the option of disrespecting the jury’s verdict, duly rendered, even if the trial that we all just saw couldn’t provide justice after the needless killing of a teenage boy. And any statement that the president makes now could later be seen to prejudice, and thus weaken, any case that the Justice Department might pursue.

Attorney General Eric Holder signaled today that he will bring a civil rights case against Zimmerman, and the more Obama wades in, the cloudier those legal waters become.

The situation was different last spring. Back then Obama was right to remind Americans that if he’d had his own son, that son would, indeed, “look like Trayvon.” It was both a timely show of solidarity, and a subtle acknowledgement that as a black man and father, Obama could have easily found himself standing in the Martin family’s shoes.

And at a time when the Florida criminal justice system had failed to do its job — and when Obama had a lot more on the line, politically, in the midst of a heated campaign — he let people know where his sympathies were without leaning too hard on the scales of justice.

But now, whether any of us wanted to hear Obama express more indignation or more sorrow than he offered in his admittedly dispassionate post-verdict response, it’s important to remember that it’s not a response being offered by a practicing lawyer, columnist or civil rights leader; it’s a response to tragedy being offered by a president.

He can try to heal, or put the story into perspective, but Obama — and all of us — would see diminishing returns if the president came along and made this tragedy about himself.

It’s a sad irony, perhaps, that our only black president can’t do more in the time of a crisis of national conscience that seems like it’s taking us backward in terms of interracial understanding. But that irony doesn’t leave the president any less constrained.

Yes, there are times when Obama has to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves and use the power of his office to paint the picture of a young Trayvon Martin as the would-be son of the president of the United States.

That was entirely in keeping with then-Sen. Obama’s admonition, in his famous 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech, that every American has a right to “insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life.”

There are other times, though, when the president has to see his way toward accepting the verdict of a jury that was duly rendered, even if he believes that it was, ultimately, unjust.

David Swerdlick is a contributing editor to The Root.

© 2013, The Root

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