What did President Obama intend when he surprised the White House press corps on Friday with a statement on the not-guilty verdict in the murder trial of George Zimmerman? The question has to be asked because the president plainly intended to say something significant and to influence public opinion in certain directions. At the same time the question is very hard to answer because his statement, though apparently heartfelt, went in several directions, contradicted itself at points, discussed matters irrelevant to the trial as if they were central to it, and was generally stronger on moral exhortation than on logic. Interpreting what he said is therefore partly speculative, a matter of art as much as of science. It risks being unfair to him. But the speech was a political act and as such is open to criticism. My interpretations, for what they are worth, are as follows:
1. He made the statement because he felt he had to say something. Almost the whole of America seemed to be discussing the verdict. Reports of protests, small-scale breakaway riots, vengeful attacks by young rioters on passers-by, were rife in the media. His Justice Department had gone out on a limb half-promising a civil-rights prosecution against Zimmerman. If violence had then become widespread, the administration would likely have been held responsible. His own initial statement — respect the verdict, don’t riot — probably sounded dry and evasive to him. It didn’t deal with the penumbra of wider issues around the trial that everyone else was discussing. He had been ruminating about these issues personally and in discussions with aides. He had formulated some general conclusions, not precisely, but not vaguely either. So he walked out and began to speak essentially ex tempore. That is always a risk, but it is much more of one when the speaker has complicated things to say. And that was the case here.
2. His starting point was that he wanted black America to understand he shared at least some of their disquiet about the trial without improperly challenging the not-guilty verdict. That’s a tough proposition to explain in any circumstances, but it was probably made more difficult (and maybe more necessary) by the likelihood that the Justice Department is not going to prosecute Zimmerman for violating Trayvon Martin’s civil rights. Indeed, one could plausibly argue that Zimmerman has a stronger case against the Justice Department for violating his civil rights (organizing local protests to demand his state prosecution, seeking to remove state officials reluctant to indict, inviting the general public to level accusations against him via the Internet) than it does against him.
Evidence that Zimmerman was actuated by racial hatred rather than self-defense when he shot Martin is not only lacking; there is a good deal of evidence from his neighbors on the other side, that he is not hostile to other ethnic groups. Much of black America believes the exact opposite, in large measure because reporting of the trial by the mainstream media has been consistently misleading. It will naturally be baffled by the failure of the Obama administration to launch what must appear to them to be a slam-dunk prosecution. The president was seeking to head off their indignation by directing their attention to other aspects of the trial — and to other solutions. In itself that seems reasonable and even statesmanlike. Some of his solutions were reasonable and worth considering.
3. His other solutions, however, ran up against a massive obstacle. One of the main issues to which the president directed people’s attention yesterday was not at issue in the trial, and even if it had been, it would not have supported the interpretation that he tried to impose on it. On the Stand Your Ground law, he conceded the first half of this difficulty and went on to say: “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?”
The answers to the president’s rhetorical questions are as follows: (a) If Trayvon Martin was resisting a violent physical attack from Zimmerman, fearing death or serious injury as a result, he would be entirely justified in using whatever means he had to protect himself. If he had a gun, he would be justified in shooting Zimmerman in those circumstances. (b) He would not be justified in shooting Zimmerman solely because the latter was following him — any more than he was in real life justified in physically attacking Zimmerman for that same reason. (c) Nor does the “duty to retreat” apply in this case because, whoever is believed, one man was on top of the other, beating him unmercifully, and leaving him no means of retreat. That is why the Stand Your Ground law was not at issue in the trial. And (d) if I wanted to be demagogic, I would say that there is no such crime as “following while white.” (Or white-Hispanic, come to that.)
4. In addition to a legitimate desire to soothe the anger and anxieties of black America, Obama almost certainly had a less creditable motive in focusing attention on such topics as the Stand Your Ground laws. In the early stages of the Martin-Zimmerman controversy, the case looked as if it would be a kind of show trial illustrating the need for various political causes of the Left: gun control, an end to racial profiling, measures against police bias, and so on. As the trial proceeded, however, almost all of these causes proved to be either irrelevant to the case or even damaged by it. There was no clear evidence that Zimmerman had racially profiled Martin; the initial police decision not to charge Zimmerman was justifiable in the light of the weak case against him; Stand Your Ground laws were, as we have seen, not at issue here; and anyone looking for evidence of bias by the courts in this case would have found more bias against Zimmerman than against Martin.
These revelations were less clear than they might have been because the mainstream media had its own bias against Zimmerman that in some instances — for instance, the editing of his conversation with the police dispatcher — rose from bias to outright forgery and lying. Even media bias, however, began to dissolve when the jury’s verdict prompted a reexamination of all the evidence, and some reporters found to their discomfort that the media’s Authorized Version was a case of journalistic sloppiness leading to a false picture of reality. That is not to say that Zimmerman was guilty of nothing. His over-zealous amateur sleuthing set in train a series of reactions that led to Martin’s death. Martin also contributed to this result by his aggressive response to Zimmerman. But this chapter of terrible accidents bore little resemblance to the simple picture of the racial profiling, stalking, and unprovoked murder of a black teenager by a white racist that the media initially drew and that serves to support a left-liberal picture of America as an endemically racist and unjust society in which young black men are an endangered species. Mr. Obama has shown at times that he shares some of this vision. He intervened on Friday in part to rescue it from the increasing skepticism that was greeting it following the verdict and the media’s reexaminations of the evidence. But since this vision is at odds not only with the facts of the Martin-Zimmerman case but also with the wider truths of American society, it is doomed to be the source of mistaken policies and to continuous failure.
5. In addition to being a left-liberal, Mr. Obama is also a man of good will. His answer to the anguish inspired by the trial and verdict is thus to appeal for greater empathy for the plight of young black men in American society. This appeal was married to some hopeful remarks about how America was becoming “more perfect” (in this context, less racist) that were well said and mainly accurate but that may be a little too hopeful in the light of this controversy.
The weakness of his appeal for empathy, however, is that it was one-sided — and one-sided, moreover, in two respects. In the first place it was a request for empathy by white America toward black America. Given American history (and given the immediate context of the president’s appeal), that must certainly be the bulk and bias of any such exercise; but it cannot be its totality. If America’s whites should take to heart, as they should repeatedly, the wounded feelings of respectable young black men who see older white people crossing the road to avoid them, then America’s blacks should understand the rational calculations that prompt such caution. Empathy cannot be a one-way street. If it is, it will become an empty piety and produce not reconciliation but resentment and cynicism. In this regard it was noticeable that the president expressed no tinge of sympathy for Mr. Zimmerman.
Maybe that was inevitable since his main intention yesterday was to pacify black America (whether he managed to do so, given yesterday’s nationwide protests, is another question). Yet it is a gap in his argument. If he respects the jury verdict as he says — indeed, if he merely takes a commonsense view of what happened — then he must realize that Zimmerman’s life has been turned upside down for months and is under serious threat today for actions that were at worst foolish and/or reckless. Somehow official America must find a way of acknowledging this. The second weakness of the president’s appeal for empathy is that it is too indulgent. Putting yourself in someone else’s place — which is the classic definition of empathy — means helping that person to deal realistically with his problems more than it means hugging him. It means tough love and honest talk. It means not endorsing someone’s comforting delusions out of politeness. It means correcting those whites who argue that black Americans face no racism today and correcting those blacks who argue that white racism remains the main obstacle to advancement. In the current context it means politely but firmly correcting the malicious fiction that a major threat to young black men — and a major anxiety for their parents — is murder at the hands of white racists. That fiction is itself a racist one.
Mr. Obama struggled to say the right things in his remarks yesterday. Mostly he succeeded, but because he has not yet freed himself from the left-liberal analysis of Amerika as racist, not wholly. And he won’t get this fundamental American question right until he does so free himself.