Last Saturday, a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of charges related to the death of Trayvon Martin. After a media fire-storm building up to the verdict, the organic public reaction was fairly muted. There were very few outpourings of protest and only some very localized acts of violence. Just as the country seemed to be moving on from the trial, and on the eve of protests sponsored by Al Sharpton, President Obama chose to weigh in on the controversy. He brought a gallon of kerosene to a quickly-extinguishing fire.
According to a recent poll from Pew Research, only 26% of the population was closely following the Zimmerman trial. Even among black Americans, just 56% were closely following the case. Compare this to the 70+% who were closely following the Rodney King trial in the early 1990s.
Just 24% of the population believes Zimmerman was motivated by race on the tragic night that claimed Trayvon Martin’s life. The public, of all races, seems to understand that, while a terrible tragedy occurred that night in Florida, the events don’t provide any meaningful context about race relations in the country. Two people made a series of misjudgments that ended in a tragic loss of life. The nation seemed to understand that and was moving on.
Which makes President Obama’s actions on Friday very curious. Obama made a surprise visit to the White House press briefing room to offer “off the cuff” remarks about the case. Politico, the White House’s chief media organ, said that Obama was “reluctantly” talking about race. Like he was cornered at an event, rather than choosing to himself to engage the White House press corps.
The main take-away line was when Obama said Trayvon Martin “could have been me 35 years ago.” When the media first thrust the case on the public, Obama said Trayvon could have looked like his son. Today, Obama, in the face of obvious public antipathy towards the verdict, raised the stakes a bit more by associating himself personally with Trayvon.
On Friday, Obama gave a very nuanced discussion about a racial conversation that no one in the country seems interested in having. The Zimmerman case, while having tragic elements, is pretty straightforward. Obama’s remarks, however, come on the eve of a nationwide push by Al Sharpton to foment racial animosity in communities across the country.
Sharpton’s efforts will likely fail. Obama, though, did what he could to keep the anger bubbling. Hopefully, one day, we can mourn a death without stoking outrage.