And Obama said, "I think the African-American community is also not naive in understanding that statistically somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else." This, too, is something people have been talking about all week. Was Zimmerman right to be so scared of a black teenager? Should Cohen be scared of black kids? As Andrew Sullivan pointed out, "The percentage odds of Richard Cohen being killed by a young black man is 0.00015 percent. And yet he’s scared. I guess it’s clarifying to have this fact of human nature expressed in a column. But it doesn’t make it any less repugnant." Blacks are more likely to kill blacks, and whites are more likely to kill whites, because crime is "driven by opportunism and proximity," The Daily Beast's Jamelle Bouie wrote. "[T]he idea of 'black-on-black crime' taps into specific fears around black masculinity and black criminality." It's not that Obama necessarily read these specific articles by these specific writers. It's that he's aware and responding to exactly what people are talking about.
Obama spoke personally about another major discussion since the Martin case got national attention: What it feels like to have everyone think you're a criminal just because of your skin color. Since Martin was killed in February 2012, here have been tons of essays by black men who've described what it's like to have to be conscious of not scaring white people in public.
Obama said, "You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago." Notably, Cohen demanded Obama admit that he, too, was scared of black males when he lived in New York in college. Obama did the opposite. He continued:
There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.
And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
Obama mentioned his white grandmother being afraid of black men on the sidewalk in his last speech about race, in 2008. That speech included much more on whites' racial fears — that affirmative action is unfair, or that their kids have to be bused to school across town. But this speech was focused on what African-Americans were feeling — that context and history were being ignored in the Zimmerman trial, the biases on display in the proceedings. As Jelani Cobb pointed out at The New Yorker, the prosecution based their case for second-degree murder on the idea that Martin was losing the fight, and Zimmerman killed him anyway. So what if Martin was winning? "[I]s an unarmed black teen-ager ever entitled to stand his ground?" And Obama addressed what has been the central question in the Martin case all along:
And that all contributes, I think, to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.
It's not that this is new ground. What's new is that a president is saying it.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.