The Last Word: President Obama’s Statement on Trayvon Martin


Hoodies up!

Because I teach about race in American history, I understand that it is a difficult topic for many people to discuss. Therefore, I support President Obama’s attempt to have a frank discussion about race and the tragedy of the death of Trayvon Martin. He was commended by liberals who felt his July 19 statement was “a word fitly spoken,” but I was unable to join in their enthusiastic praise. I was disappointed and, at best, ambivalent.

On July 19, the President reiterated what he said in his July 14 statement and expanded on thoughts he expressed after the shooting and in 2012. Relating that he is no stranger to the public reactions of whites who assume black criminality was important, even powerful. He could see himself in Trayvon Martin.

For some reason, however, Pres. Obama qualified his discussion of Martin by offering a conservative argument about black violence and crime. He stated that young black men are “disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence,” although he explained that, in part, this was due to “a very difficult history” of racial disparities and injustice. He continued by arguing the half-truth of so-called “black-on-black” violence, stating “somebody like Trayvon Martin was statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else.” It is a specious argument. First, Martin did not meet his death at the hands of a peer; it was at the hands of George Zimmerman. Not by another black person. Not in a black community. Second, to embrace the fiction of “black-on-black crime” is to embrace the myth of black pathology. Department of Justice statistics show that between 1980 and 2008, 93% of black victims were killed by black assailants. Similarly, 84% of white victims were killed by other whites. Strangely, no one has bothered to address the “white-on-white” crime epidemic. The problem, Edward Wyckoff Williams writes on, is that “African-American media and policymakers have been equally complicit in promoting a ‘black-on-black crime’ anecdote, thinking that it could help address some of the community’s problems; but what it has actually done is provide support for racial profiling and promote the disproportionate policing of black criminality as ‘legitimate’ and ‘acceptable.'”

Finally, Pres. Obama returned to the well-worn admonishment that people should not turn to violence. (See last week’s post, Keep Calm.) He stated, “I think it’s understandable that there have been demonstrations and vigils and protests, and some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through, as long as it remains nonviolent. If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family.” By addressing the potential (and perhaps imminent) threat of black violence, the President justifies irrational fears and reifies damaging stereotypes about African Americans.

In the end, this case was not about black-on-black or white-on-white crime, nor was it about statistics. It was about a continuation of separate and unequal justice. It was about a “stand-your-ground” law that allowed a man with a gun to argue self-defense in the shooting of an unarmed teenager. Let’s not forget that.


11 thoughts on “The Last Word: President Obama’s Statement on Trayvon Martin

  1. You know, this makes clear that white supremacy is reified by the concept of “black-on-black crime” and the concept of “black-on-black crime” pathologizes black folk as inherently bad. Countless times, I have heard black folks pose the question, “what is wrong with us (black people)” for being so violent, as opposed to “what is wrong with our American culture?” Was it H. Rap Brown who proclaimed that “violence is as American as cherry pie?” And, the statistics that emerged from the Department of Justice reveal that white people are almost equally as violent toward each other as black people (and every other race, for that matter). People commit crimes against people in their neighborhoods, who likely look like themselves. Sounds like Sociology 101 to me!

    So, the question that begs an answer: who benefits from the repetition of the usage of the concept “black-on-black crime?” I’d say those who promote a gun culture and those who promote white supremacist ideology and black fear. Though Zimmerman was white (all of his official documents define him as white, by the way) it is the reification of “black-on-black crime” (which makes black people inherently violent and criminally minded) that justifies his actions for killing this young boy. The thought process: Black people kill each other, so it is safe to say that they would come after white people with equal venom.

    The concept of “black-on-black crime,” as it is presented repetitiously in the media produces fear and hate toward black people in the same ways that “Birth of a Nation” did at the turn of the last century.

    • Seems like I struck a nerve with you, Hype 1! Yes, we need to “question America” about violence in all its forms. The statistic about “white-on-white” crime is easily accessed in the same place as the “black-on-black” crime statistic. In fact, it’s on the same page. So, why is one ignored while the other emphasized? Hmm…I think I’ll let folks draw their own conclusions there.

  2. Pingback: From Don Imus to Zimmerman: Tracing Conversations on Race & Victimization | 2 Dope Sistahs

  3. Pingback: From Don Imus to Zimmerman: Tracing Conversations on Race & Victimization | 2 Dope Sistahs

  4. I think President Obama did a great job in his speech. He was passionate, but not hysterical. Poised but not cold. He provided some context for whites, and expressed his feelings as a black man–which is good for the black community. He is the President of the United States, not just of black Americans. He can’t just make sweeping statements or actions without massive repercussions and jeopardizing another brown face holding that office ever again. I think his comments dissuading violence were accurate. We can’t be so offended by things that are true; no body made up the fact that black people riot when frustrated! It happens time and time again! I think the better approach is to do something about WHY black people riot! Any oppressed group or individual lashes out when they feel there is no other recourse to adequately express their emotions. Lastly, we must look carefully at the black-on-black crime statistics. It was pointed out the percentage of same race crime is similar for whites and blacks. There are around 13mil black Americans, and white Americans outnumber us at least ten times-their numbers should be higher than ours. These statistics say to me that there are fewer of us and we still manage to kill each other off at the same rate? No bueno. Chicago alone is probably more dangerous for a black male than signing up for a tour of duty right now. The Zimmerman case was a gross miscarriage of justice that must and should be addressed, but we cannot neglect sweeping around our own front door as well.

    • The president struck the wrong chord with me. While this was ostensibly a statement about Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman, it drifted into a counter-factual discussion of what did not happen to Martin. He was not killed by a peer, another black person, nor in a black community. That he was statistically more likely to die some other way was not relevant to the way he actually died. I am not offended by truth, but I am offended by conservative arguments that embrace damaging stereotypes of black pathology and criminality.

      I think this conversation speaks to Da Hype 1’s post “From Don Imus to Zimmerman.” If Obama’s statement was indeed about Trayvon Martin, why did he flip the script to “black-on-black violence,” changing the discussion from Martin as a victim, to black people as the perpetrators and purveyors of violence? After all, the overwhelming majority of the more than 38.9 million black people in this country (42 million if you count those who identify as more than one race) are not criminals and do not engage in rioting “time and time again.” Thus, we do not need the president’s paternalistic admonitions about the proper behavior.

  5. Pingback: Open Season on Black Children: 8 year old Donald Maiden is Shot in the Face | 2 Dope Sistahs

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