The President Has Fumbled
Just over a week ago, George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the death of Trayvon Martin.
It seems there is not a single American without an opinion about the incident, the handling of the case, the legal proceedings, the outcome, and the media’s fixation on this latest cause celebre. I have opinions, too, on all of those issues and more. I am tempted to add my opinions to the millions being voiced, but that would not be in keeping with the very premise of my blog, now would it?
Instead I want to limit myself (for today at least) to a very narrow aspect of this incident: how should I, a white, conservative Christian respond to all of this?
Let me begin by expressing my disappointment in President Obama’s handling.
When he was elected in 2008, I thought that it said something about our progress as a nation. Though I could not have a more divergent political philosophy, I saw his election as an extraordinary opportunity for significant advances in race relations. I thought that perhaps, instead of grinding out one muddy yard at a time, he could run a sweep, pick up big yardage, gain a first down, and who knows, maybe even reach the end zone. I envisioned America forgetting ethnicity, cheering him on as he sprinted down the sidelines, lost in the enthusiasm that our team was ready to score.
That’s not how I feel now. I feel let down, disappointed by a mundane performance that includes entirely too many fumbles. And one of those fumbles is the President’s ham-handed handling of the ball in the Zimmerman case.
When the incident first occurred, the President weighed in by saying, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” I was crestfallen. I would have thought that the President had learned from the Henry Louis Gates fiasco, when he prematurely opined that Cambridge, MA police acted “stupidly,” not to fan the flames of division, to let the facts unfold before weighing in, or even to demur entirely for matters beneath the office of the presidency. I hoped he had learned the art of transcendence, rising above the pettiness of ethnicity to inspire and to lead us. All of us.
Then, when the Zimmerman verdict was reached, I thought surely President Obama would speak words of healing and unity, as RFK did on April 4, 1968. Instead, he responded with this:
“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. 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.”
I’m sorry, but that’s just not my definition of transcendence. To me, it’s yet another fumble.
My disappointment in the President has challenged me. It has helped me see an opportunity here. I don’t want to simply bemoan his fumbles. I want to pick up the ball and run with it. I know I’m a clumsy lineman, not a sleek thoroughbred of a tailback, but when the ball is on the ground, someone has to pick it up and run. I think that’s the challenge now for me and for people who look like me and think like me.
This is an opportunity for white, conservative, Christians. I hope we’ll seize it. I hope we will overlook the President’s inarticulate and divisive musings and get to the substance of what he’s trying to say. Our black brothers and sisters, our neighbors, have a different experience of America, a different history, and that now creates a different perspective of events for many of them. If we ignore that, mock that, or disregard that as baseless, we are missing our moment to shine. If we will listen when we want to speak, if we will understand even when we disagree, if we will seek justice for all instead of being sucked into this vortex of division … who knows, maybe God will bring good out of this evil.
The President has fumbled. He has missed a golden opportunity. I will not miss mine. I hope you will not miss yours.