Trayvon Martin Could Have Been Me: A Watershed Moment for the U.S.

President Obama’s poignant comments on the white-racist discrimination that Black men regularly face were pathbreaking for this country. First, in the history of the U.S. never has such a high government official so forthrightly called out key elements of white racism and condemned persisting patterns of racial harassment and profiling of Black boys and men.

Secondly, Obama’s commentary, together with his speech during the 2008 election, mark the first time that whites and many other nonblack Americans have heard important elements of the Black counter-frame to the centuries-old white racial framing of this society—at least not from such a “bully pulpit,” as Teddy Roosevelt put it.


(Image from ThinkProgress)

One cannot imagine any white president saying, or being able to say, what Obama has said in his two explicit commentaries on U.S. racism. He certainly did not say enough about this racism, but his commentaries so far have been pathbreaking, especially for a white population much of which is in terminal denial of that racism.

Obama assessed the killing of Trayvon Martin from a Black perspective, one rarely taken seriously by most white Americans. Now, for a time, it has to be taken seriously and provides the basis to expand on his analysis later on.

Obama made his first comment to an African American family that has suffered much white racism over their lives, and like many such families lost a young male to unnecessary violence. Saluting the Martin family, he underscored

the incredible grace and dignity with which they’ve dealt with the entire situation. I can only imagine what they’re going through, and it’s remarkable how they’ve handled it.

Then his assessment moved to an approach rare in this country’s public forum—-he accented our historical and contemporary societal context of white racism. That critical context, he made clear, includes many decades of racial profiling, harassment, and killing of Black boys and men. And it means long decades of frequent and very painful Black experience in dealing with an array of discriminatory realities:

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. 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.

This eloquent statement about recurring Black experiences sums up what millions of Black men, women, and children have been telling this country’s whites in many ways, for generations. Obama underscores a key aspect of the Black counter-frame, the deep understanding of the great racial inequality in the operation of our “justice” system:

. . . those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.. . . 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.

He accents the importance of understanding the long history of unjust impoverishment of African Americans in creating problems of violence in communities—something few whites wish to do. The Black community understands

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.

He thereby gives us a sense of how and why African Americans saw the Trayvon Martin killing early on as very much a racial matter:

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 ends his comments, as he often does, with a pragmatic statement about what we should do next. He calls for much better law enforcement training at state and local levels:

When I was in Illinois, I passed racial profiling legislation. . . . it collected data on traffic stops and the race of the person who was stopped. But the other thing was it resourced us training police departments across the state on how to think about potential racial bias and ways to further professionalize . . .. So that’s one area where I think there are a lot of resources and best practices that could be brought to bear if state and local governments are receptive.

His second suggestion is to reassess notorious “stand your ground” laws, one of which was at least implicitly involved in the Zimmerman case. He made a dramatic point that has provoked even a conservative commentator like David Brooks to rethink this problematical law and what happened to the teenager:

And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these “stand your ground” laws, I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.

His third suggestion was, once again, very positive. He called for much action to

bolster and reinforce our African American boys. . . . is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them? . . . And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes, and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African American men feel that they’re a full part of this society. . . .

A bit vague, but again a rare moment of insight about Black male needs at this public level. His last suggestion was also rather vague but echoed Dr. King:

I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. . . . in families and churches and workplaces, there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?

Not surprisingly, he concludes on an optimistic note of hope about the younger generation:

better than we are — they’re better than we were — on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.

Characteristically optimistic Obama comments in public, if unfortunately and substantially contradicted by much social science data on our white youth. According to numerous studies, the younger generations of whites may be better in some ways but they are still very racist in their white racial framing of society and in their racist performances and actions growing out of that framing.

On the whole, a pathbreaking speech that only an Black president could have so effectively delivered. It is sad, and often noted in Black America, that Black Americans too often end up as the major teachers of whites about how white racism operates and its devastating and painful impacts. Obama has used that “bully pulpit” to give white America some significant lessons about the reality and damage of that white racism. It will long be remembered as a watershed moment, one requiring great courage.

We do not live in a real democracy, and we have numerous institutions that do not operate democratically, including an unelected Supreme Court and very unrepresentative U.S. Senate. Not to mention a very dysfunctional House because of Tea Party and other extreme conservative elements there.

However, despite Obama’s having to face this undemocratic reality daily, and also having to face recurring critiques across the political spectrum of his accomplishments on civil rights, it has often made a difference in public policies on discrimination that we have an African American president.

Working with his Department of Justice, Obama has implemented the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively, ended anti-gay policies in the military, spoken out for gay marriage rights. Obama and his cabinet officials have abandoned previous Republican attempts to end much civil rights enforcement. He appointed Attorney General Eric Holder, the first black attorney general, who has moved his department toward much more aggressive civil rights enforcement and hired many more lawyers with significant real-world experience in civil rights enforcement. He also responded much more forthrightly to international and United Nations requests for reports on the U.S. civil rights situation. Obama also made a dramatic improvement in the federal relationship with Native Americans–including, after many years of delays, billions in compensation to Native American groups for federal mismanagement of Indian land trusts.

No president, including Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, has accomplished more progressive policy goals, especially on racial issues, since the 1960s presidency of President Lyndon Johnson. This includes putting at least some aspects of white racism on the national discussion and policy agenda.


  1. John D. Foster

    Great post, Joe. While I welcomed the President’s comments on Friday, I did take issue with his rosy assessment of young whites today. Certainly I understand why he would say that, for obvious political reasons. However, can we really say that they (i.e., young whites) are “better” than us (i.e., older whites)? Have things really changed all that much, and if so, for the better? I see affirmative action on the chopping block and the Voting Rights Act torn to shreds by the Roberts Court. It’s sad how the President must tip-toe around this issue and be sure to maintain the image of the pure, innocent, lily-white.

    • Joe Author

      Thanks, John. Very good questions and insights. “Better” is always in the eye of the beholder, and you are right white youth and whites generally still are part of an oppressor class and should get no ‘slack’ because they are not imposing slavery or Jim Crow. Racial oppression in most institutions today still means great pain and loss for those targeted by that oppression. As well as for the whole society, in many ways, too.

  2. Sharon Chang

    Appreciate this, Dr Feagin. Curious what your thoughts are on Tavis Smiley’s less-than-enthusiastic response that President Obama was “pushed to the podium”, that he “cannot lead from behind”, and that “he still had not answered the most important question…where do we go from here?”

    • Joe Author

      Hi, Sharon, good questions. I have not heard Smiley on this matter, but in the past he has leveled much heated criticism at the president for not doing more on racism issues. Obama is a liberal pragmatist who has made very clear over his decades that he works for the ‘long game’ and clearly gets what he can under our very undemocratic political system. He has done far more on antidiscrimination action, as I point out in the post, than any top US political leader since Johnson. Obviously, he — like his left critics — would like to do much much more on racism and other progressive issues, but he is a prisoner of the white conservatives who control the House, the Supreme Courts, and most of the time the Senate. The progressive critics who really matter, it seems to me, are not the talkers, but the ones organizing and working hard to change politically our highly undemocratic system — so a liberal like Obama can actually do much more. And he already has (often quietly) exhibited more leadership, as modest as it is, on race/racism issues than ANY white ‘liberal’ or other political leader in this country. Also, Smiley is wrong on one point: Obama he did offer some modest steps on where we go from here. Not nearly enough, but way more than the white racist conservatives who actually run this country, in fact, will allow or encourage. The real solution is another major civil rights and anti-racism movement, like in the 1960s, seeking to create real democratic institutions.

  3. JGoering

    verty thoughtful post Joe; thank you. At the same time (yesterday), Shelby Steele,an ostensible social scientist, attacks what he calls the ‘civil rights establishment.” They, he argues, “are fighting to maintain its authority to wield poetic truth-the authority to tell the larger society how it must think about blacks, how it must respond to them…” this counter narrative from the right needs to be combatted by the anti-racists he seeks to position as marginal and power focused.

    • Joe Author

      John, interesting points. It is odd how almost anybody gets counted by the mainstream media as a social science expert. Steele was actually for a long time an English professor, with an English Phd from U. Utah. He seems very uninformed about much social science research on contemp. racism in his writings and comments, so far as I can see–he mostly ignores the many 100s of studies demonstrating systemic racism. ( I just cited 400+ in my new edition of Racist America, including 200+ very new ones–so no exaggeration of the number here.) He has links to white-run, right-wing thinktanks. The latter undoubtedly like remarks critical of a supposed cr establishment. White wealthy conservative/moderate folks, as you know, also control much of the mainstream media which, “liberal” imagery notwithstanding, are only episodically and usu. quite briefly interested in serious data/analysis on racial oppression/discrimination in this country. I can testify from personal experience–having probably done as much field research on racism as any living social scientist and for 49 years now–that I have never ever been asked to appear on a important TV news media panel set to discuss for more than 60 seconds any of these white-racism issues. I do very occasionally get interviewed by the US print media, but the reporters (or maybe more likely, their editors) are rarely interested in more than a one sentence or so soundbite — from a long interview I take time to give them. (Sometimes they kill the story too, after I spend a long time with a reporter explaining systemic racism.) And I have tried numerous times to get oped pieces in major newspapers on racism issues, with no luck except for two decades back in Texas papers. So, a/the key problem is censorship of the critical information by the media (and others) that the (white) country needs to even begin to understand the reality of past and present racism, beyond what they know from participating in it. Not to mention, the issue of getting most whites to pay attention to such data if it was presented to them.


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