He could have been me. I could have been out on neighborhood watch in my community performing my duties on a rainy night. It could have been me following a young African-American male around in my neighborhood because I did not recognize him, and because my neighborhood had been burglarized by young African Americans. It could have been me lying beneath a young black man who was striking my head against the concrete, my nose broken in a fight gone bad. It could have been me that tragic, deadly night.
It could have been me facing criminal charges for doing nothing illegal that night, presumed guilty of a crime I didn’t commit, and presumed guilty of being a racist, even though I had not an ounce of racism in me, and even though the way I lived my life was proof of that assertion.
It could have been me who, after being acquitted by a jury of my peers in a state trial that never would have happened but for the color of my skin — not even the color of my skin, but what my name suggested the color of my skin might be — soon became the target of an investigation by the federal government.
It could have been me facing a media so hell-bent on turning me into a monster that they said and did almost anything, including doctoring a 9-1-1 call, in order to turn me into something I wasn’t.
It could have been me who will live with the fact that my actions led to the taking of a young life.
It could have been me. I could have been George Zimmerman.
That was the part of President Obama’s speech I was waiting to hear after his very good — but incomplete — speech about the Zimmerman case. It is true that President Obama could have been Trayvon Martin. But it is equally true that he could have been George Zimmerman.
That’s the thing about real empathy; you have to walk in the shoes of all people, not just the ones you agree with or relate to.
I was waiting for that part of the speech because President Obama is uniquely qualified to give it. Because he is half white and half black, just as George Zimmerman is half white and half Hispanic — just as most Americans are half something and half something else.
Part of the speech given by President Obama was sensitive and filled with the right kind of emotion and tone. The warehousing of young inner-city males in prisons for low-level crimes is a tragedy and also a national disgrace (one, by the way, that white Christian conservatives are working hard to rectify). Disparity in sentencing is a real problem; too many African-American males are sentenced far more stringently than whites who commit similar crimes. And the president was right to talk about the terrible disparity in unemployment rates between white people and African Americans, and the particularly high rate of youth unemployment in our inner cities. White people need to know more about these facts, and President Obama was right to talk about those things.
But what I did not hear from President Obama — the part of the speech that was missing — was any mention of the very real tragedy of so many young African Americans being warehoused in schools that have been failing them for generations. I also did not hear him talk about the warehousing of African Americans in wretched public housing that often looks and feels like prison, with gang members instead of corrections officers acting as the guards. I did not hear President Obama talk about the 75 percent of African-American babies born without fathers, and how that lack of masculine love harms neighborhoods and lives. He made no mention of how all that fatherlessness paves the path to gangs, and to babies having babies.
I was waiting to hear President Obama talk about how no social program, no community organizing, can ever replace the unconditional love of a father and mother. And how no social program can replace a good-paying job.
I was waiting to hear President Obama speak plainly about the reason that George Zimmerman followed Trayvon Martin. If young black males had not committed crimes in that neighborhood, would Zimmerman even have been out on patrol for the neighborhood watch?
In July 2004, Bill Cosby dared to speak of these matters in a speech he gave to the NAACP. African Americans, including many black leaders and intellectuals, instantly derided him for being “too white” and for “blaming the victim.”
I was waiting for President Obama to say something like this, which he could have lifted from Cosby’s speech:
Fifty percent dropout rate, I’m telling you, and people in jail, and women having children by five, six different men. Under what excuse? I want somebody to love me. And as soon as you have it, you forget to parent. Grandmother, mother, and great-grandmother in the same room, raising children, and the child knows nothing about love or respect of any one of the three of them. All this child knows is “gimme, gimme, gimme.” These people want to buy the friendship of a child, and the child couldn’t care less. Those of us sitting out here who have gone on to some college or whatever we’ve done, we still fear our parents. And these people are not parenting. They’re buying things for the kid — $500 sneakers — for what? They won’t buy or spend $250 on Hooked on Phonics.