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A More Perfect Union for Trayvon

Posted by Francie Latour  March 23, 2012 03:36 PM

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“We can tackle race only as spectacle,” the candidate and then-Senator Barack Obama said exactly four years ago this week, riveting the nation from a Philadelphia podium as he delivered a historic, campaign-saving speech on race. “[We can tackle it] in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina. Or as fodder for the nightly news.”

Distant memories, indeed, those days when Obama would stand before a microphone and confront the raw complexities of race head on. In 2008, having stitched his loving, bigoted white grandmother and his loving, bigoted black pastor together in a single American tapestry, he was outlining the reflexes – spasms, really – that often result when matters of race explode onto the national scene. And he was offering another option.

Race – the colossal weight of it, its divisive, detonating nature -- was not something the country could go on ignoring, Obama said then. The only way out of it -- the only way -- was to go much, much further into it. “The issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks," he argued, "reflect the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.” His speech lasted for 37 minutes.

That’s about 35 minutes longer than President Obama’s comments today on the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by so-called neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla. The unarmed teenager's death is a tragedy that strikes at the heart of race in America, and that perfectly and purely shows the lethal consequences of having black skin while walking from one place to another place.

Today, Obama did not say or do anything more than he had to. He did not pick up a telephone completely unprompted, offering words of comfort and diving into a political firestorm, as he did earlier this month to Georgetown University Law School student and contraception advocate Sandra Fluke. He did not brand a police official as acting “stupidly,” as with the race-capade of 2009 following the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. by the Cambridge Police Department.

Today Obama merely waited for a question at a Rose Garden press conference, and when it came, he very cautiously answered it. But ultimately, the words that came out were eerily reminiscent of the message candidate Obama implored Americans to hear four years ago, when the controversy from a taped church sermon threatened to engulf his campaign: We have to do more than just react. Even with deeply unresolved racial divides, we have to find our common stake in this thing, and follow the instruction manual we were given: we the people, in order to form a more perfect union.

“I think all of us have to do some soul searching to figure out, how does something like this happen,” Obama said earlier this morning. Speaking about Trayvon’s parents, he said, “I think they are right to expect that all of us as American are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and we are going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.”

If the killing of an innocent black teenager and the lack of initial action by law enforcement is any indication, we have not been searching our souls, or not searching hard enough. Proclaiming the advent of a new “post-racial” America, yes. Pointing incessantly to the skin color of the current Commander-in-Chief as a way to, as Obama suggested in his 2008 speech, “buy reconciliation on the cheap.” Certainly we’ve done that. But the dictionary defines soul searching as “the act or process of close and penetrating analysis of oneself, to determine one’s true motives and sentiments.” Close and penetrating analysis, in this case especially, is bound to be costly.

I will never understand why a boy with a bag of candy and his entire future in front of him would need to be sacrificed for such an act or process to commence. But now that it has happened, perhaps we can begin to pry apart the fingers that seem to be stretched so tightly over America’s closed eyes, and begin to see racism for what it is and what it does. Trayvon's parents are crying out for that, as are growing numbers of Americans rallying in support of them. And so was the former senator from Illinois:

“The path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination – and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past – are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds: by investing in our schools and our communities, by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system, by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations.

“It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.”

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Francie Latour writes about race, gender, ethnicity, and cultural identity. She’s written about everything from working-mom guilt to black Barbies as a contributor to The Boston Globe, where she worked for 11 years as an investigative reporter and features writer. More »

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