President Obama Speaks Out on Race — Analysis and Rebuttal

by Bill O'Connell on July 21, 2013

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President Barack Obama made an impromptu visit to the White House Press briefing room on Friday. He wanted to speak to the press corps, sans teleprompter, and share his thoughts on the Trayvon Martin case. He had previously raised the profile of this case by saying that if he had a son he might look like Trayvon.

When the case ended, he said the jury had spoken, and we respect their decision. That was good. But in his remarks on Friday, he seemed to stoke the racial fires again. He wanted to add his perspective as a black man in America, albeit while holding the most powerful job in America. For those of us who are not black we are constantly being told we don’t understand, we can’t understand, and oh, by the way we’re all racist.

If President Obama is serious about solving the problem, perhaps he would be willing to take a moment and see the other side of the coin. As Stephen Covey said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” I would like to rebut some of the president’s key points and then offer him a view of the world from the other side.

Some of the President’s Key Points

 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 — that doesn’t go away

Perhaps one of the reasons that this doesn’t go away is that there is a group of people whose livelihoods depend on promoting racial animosity. The president says he wants an honest dialog on race, and I believe many off us do, but when those who do not toe the line of the race baiters, we are shouted down as racists. Just think of how many times the Tea Party supporters are branded as racists without any proof.

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. And 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.

If you replaced African-American men in Mr. Obama’s analogy with white tattooed bikers, would the reaction be any different? Hardly. They would be followed, at a safe distance, the car door locks would click and that same woman would clutch her purse just as tightly. Is it profiling? Yes, is it racial profiling? No. There was a recent Volkswagen commercial where a white guy goes into a convenience store wearing a ski mask. He was wearing the mask because it was winter and he and his friends were driving around with the top down. But all the patrons in the store thought they were about to be held up. Why did they feel that way? Because of profiling.

Profiling is in our DNA. It is how we survive. If you see a bear in the woods, you become very aware and very wary. It doesn’t matter if the bear is black, brown, or white. Bears are dangerous. Take caution. If you then saw a horse, you would not be equally alarmed, again regardless of color. If a young man dresses like a gangsta with the waistband of his jeans down below his butt cheeks showing a generous 8”-10” of his boxer shorts, people will not assume he is collecting for the Red Cross. If young black men who dress a certain way are seen on the evening news every night as being sought by the police that goes into people’s databank. When they see a person fitting that profile on the street, their gut tells them to be wary. The profile of the white biker would have a similar effect. It is not racial profiling, it is not racist. Ask Jesse Jackson, “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery. Then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.” Either we’re both racist or we are not.

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 are 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.

As Frederick Douglas said, “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” Seventy-five percent of black children were not born out-of-wedlock in the 1950s. What is the historical context that destroyed the black nuclear family? Could it be The Great Society rather than slavery and racism? Why does the future look so bleak to young black men? Could it be the failure of government monopoly schools, coupled with demands for minimum wages above the economic value the employer gets in return?

So — 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 or — and that context is being denied. And — 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.

Maybe they get frustrated by seeing you, Mr. President, sending your daughters to Sidwell Friends Academy while mothers in Washington, DC, have to send their children to the dismal public school system while you work so hard to prevent school vouchers in the district to curry favor with the teachers unions. The public schools have a 56% graduation rate in DC, but where vouchers are used the rate is 82%. So why are you, Mr. President, standing in the way of these children’s success rather than being its champion?

With regard to your assertion that had it been a white male teen had been involved instead of Trayvon Martin, the outcome might have been different, consider the case of Roderick Scott, a black man, who went out of his house to confront a trio of teens breaking into cars in Greece, New York. Scott said he told the three to freeze and wait for the police. One of the three charged him and Scott shot him twice, killing him. The jury believed Scott was in fear for his life and found him not guilty. On the other hand, what if Zimmerman was black. Would this have found its way onto anyone’s radar?

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 has traditionally done it at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.

Eric Holder? Really? The same Eric Holder who dropped the case against the New Black Panther Party.  The New Black Panther party members stood in front of a polling place with clubs and talked trash to whites coming to vote, about now  being ruled by a black man now. Do you think that might damage your credibility with whites when you say you want to have a conversation about race?

Along the same lines, I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see if it — if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than diffuse potential altercations.

No, Mr. President, it would not be useful for you to get involved with local laws. That is not your job. For someone who proclaimed to be a constitutional “scholar” you seem to know little about federalism and the ninth and tenth amendments.

And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these “stand your ground” laws, I 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?

It’s hard to know where to start on this one. Stand Your Ground laws do not give someone the right to shoot anyone who approaches them. Stood his ground against what? Zimmerman was following him; not bull rushing him; not attacking him. It was Martin who attacked Zimmerman. Since we’re speculating, what if Zimmerman never got his gun out and Martin beat his head on the ground one time too many and killed him? Would you be calling Trayvon your son, or would you say that could have been you thirty-five years ago?

In Florida, blacks have made about a third of the Stand Your Ground claims in homicide cases, double their makeup of the population. So Stand Your Ground laws have disproportionately helped blacks. Is that what you want to fix?

Closing Thoughts
There is no doubt that this is a tragedy. Slightly different behavior on the part of both Zimmerman and Martin and this wouldn’t have happened the way it played out. But if we want to have a serious conversation about race, we can’t have one side present their views and then stick their fingers in their ears, stomp their feet and cry, “Racist! racist!” when the other side speaks. Since you shared your perspective, let me enlighten you to how someone on the other side sees it.

When the Zimmerman verdict came down, there was no cheering and dancing in the streets by whites, but there was rioting by blacks. I viewed it as a tragedy, but one where our justice system worked. I remember watching a scene in a beauty parlor just prior to the verdict being announced in the O.J. Simpson trial. There were a row of black ladies seated under hair dryers watching the news. When the verdict was read all the ladies jumped out of their chairs cheering and screaming. Simpson nearly beheaded his white wife and her white friend and these women were cheering? A reaction such as relief, I could get that, but joy?

When the Rodney King verdict was read, riots broke and an innocent white truck driver Reginald Denny found himself  in the wrong place at the wrong time, dragged from the cab of his truck and his head smashed with a cinder block by some of the black rioters. It seems that if the system is only fair if the black community agrees with the verdict. I listened to numerous interviews where people were asked if the trail was fair and almost everyone agreed the trial was fair, the jury was not racist, and yet let’s break windows and burn cars if we don’t like the verdict. I am not naïve to ignore that there is a history of unfair trials involving blacks in this country, but when is the playing field leveled?

How long does the NAACP believe the federal government has to continue signing off on changes in voter laws in Southern states when the black voter participation rate is higher in Mississippi, Georgia and North Carolina is higher than whites? Even Massachusetts has a poorer record than Mississippi. How long does affirmative action go on, which is discrimination against other races by definition. Can we look at our black president and say maybe it’s time to say mission accomplished and move on to a merit system. How long do we look at the failures of the Great Society before we say let’s end that experiment and once again encourage the formation and continuation of the black nuclear family? When do we give every child an opportunity scholarship to go to a school of their choice rather than condemn them to failing schools, illiteracy, and a life of poverty?

If you want to talk to me about race, know this. I am a Frederick Douglass Republican. Like Frederick Douglass I believe in the following:

  1. Respect for the Constitution – “The American Constitution is a written instrument full and complete in itself. No Court in America, no Congress, no President, can add a single word thereto, or take a single word therefrom. It is a great national enactment done by the people, and can only be altered, amended, or added to by the people.” – March 26, 1860
  2. Respect for Life –“I expose slavery in this country, because to expose it is to kill it. Slavery is one of those monsters of darkness to whom the light of truth is death.” Slavery is not only the physical kind. Slavery is also being forced to follow a line of thought without challenge. Just think of how black conservatives are ostracized by the so-called black leadership
  3. Belief in Limited Government – “What I ask for the Negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice.”
  4. Belief in Individual Responsibility –“..And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fail also. All I ask is give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone…your interference is doing him positive injury…I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs. Man’s greatness consists in his ability to do and the proper application of his powers to things needed to be done.”

Mr. President, if you want to have a conversation about race, stop lecturing and start listening.


That’s my opinion. I’d like to know yours. Please comment below.




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