The death of Trayvon Martin has renewed the debate about race and identity in America. It also has raised the question why President Obama has not opened the national dialogue on race he promised four years ago.
New, sometimes contradictory, information emerges daily about the Feb. 26 incident in which George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin. Hearsay, rumors and opinions masquerading as facts dominate the discussion. Acts of extreme journalistic malpractice, such as NBC’s “Today” show running a 911 call tape that was edited to make Mr. Zimmerman’s motive appear unquestionably racist, serve to throw gasoline on the fire. A March 26 CNN poll showed that 73 percent of Americans think Mr. Zimmerman should be arrested, and this trial by media brings to mind John P. Roche’s observation that lynch mobs will claim to be highly democratic because there is only one dissenting voice.
Some actions surrounding the case have been bizarre. The New Black Panther Party issued a $10,000 bounty for Mr. Zimmerman’s “capture.” Old Black Panther Rep. Bobby L. Rush, Illinois Democrat, protested by appearing on the House floor wearing a hoodie. Celebrity activist Spike Lee tweeted what he thought was Mr. Zimmerman’s address to his nearly quarter-million followers, only to find out he had terrorized an elderly couple by publishing the wrong address.
Americans who are accustomed to feeling that they live post-racial lives are being forced to take sides in a dispute in which the facts are murky. People of good conscience may reasonably say they have no idea what went on that night while they await more information. Given the growing furor over the case, it would be an ideal time for Mr. Obama to step up and engage the country.
Mr. Obama is uniquely able to lead such an exploration of the issue. He is of mixed racial background, and in speeches he appeals to both sides of his cultural heritage. His historic election was viewed as a watershed for the issue of race relations. He could use his moral authority to reach across the racial divide on this topic. Instead, he has been largely silent. His one statement, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” was both irrelevant and biased. To some, it sounded creepy, and it did nothing to calm the situation.
The optics of the shooting aren’t ideal for Democrats, as Mr. Zimmerman is Hispanic. Highlighting the Black/Latino divide makes for bad politics in an election year, but the rhetoric has been so heated that it may be difficult to pull back. The White House ought to exert leadership if for no other reason than to prevent a train wreck within the coalition he needs for November. If Mr. Obama won’t simply do the right thing, maybe self-interest will motivate him. Otherwise, it looks like it will take a stronger leader to open a true dialogue on race in America.
The Washington Times