Facing talk of Trayvon Martin and race, Obama walks a fine line

The case of Trayvon Martin presents a minefield to a president who has long moved carefully on racial matters, underscoring the unique hazard — and opportunity — President Obama faces whenever the discussion of skin color moves front and center.

As the first black man to occupy the White House, and as someone who has personally felt the sting of racial prejudice, Obama is uniquely suited to address what remains, after hundreds of years, one of the country’s most vexing challenges: to fully reconcile the worlds of black and white America.

At the same time, political realities have forced Obama to find an elusive middle ground. While there is no denying the breakthrough nature of his election, he might never have become president had it seemed at any point in his political career that he overtly favored African Americans over white voters

The result has been a duality to his presidency: bringing aspects of the African American experience into the White House — placing a bust of Martin Luther King in the Oval Office, referencing black poets and hip-hop artists as small examples — while striving to present a colorblind administration.

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To be seen now as taking sides from behind a desk in the Oval Office would risk a backlash that could not only set back race relations, but also impede progress on a host of initiatives  — on healthcare, immigration, global warming — that Obama already has struggled to advance.

His measured reaction to the acquittal of the man who shot Martin, George Zimmerman, was illustrative. “We are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken,” he said in a brief written statement issued Sunday by the White House.

The closest Obama came to overt politicking was a pitch for gun control legislation, another of his objectives stymied by opposition lawmakers. “We should ask ourselves if we're doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis,” Obama said.

Left unspoken were any personal reflections from a president who famously observed — before Zimmerman was charged, as protests over Martin’s death were mounting last year — that if he had a son,  “he'd look like Trayvon.”

“When I think about this boy,” he told reporters in the White House Rose Garden, “I think about my own kids.”

Obama offered no further comment on the case Monday, and his spokesman, Jay Carney, declined to say whether the president thought justice had been served in the Sanford, Fla., courtroom, where a jury cleared Zimmerman of second-degree murder and manslaughter. “I don't have anything to add,” Carney said when pressed by reporters.

Aides said Obama wanted to steer clear of public debate as the Justice Department weighs the possibility of civil rights charges against Zimmerman, who said he feared for his life in the February 2012 confrontation and forcefully denied that race played any role in his encounter with Martin.

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Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., appearing before a Washington gathering of Delta Sigma Theta, a black sorority, said the Martin case presented the country with a chance, once more, to have a meaningful discussion of race and race relations. “We must not, as we have too often in the past, let this opportunity pass,” Holder said.

Few, however, may be as aware of the politically fraught nature of such a conversation. Early in his term as the nation’s first African American attorney general, Holder marked Black History Month with a speech in which he said the country was “essentially a nation of cowards” for shrinking from an honest dialogue on an issue that cleaves like no other.

The remark prompted a storm of criticism, and Obama issued a mild rebuke. ''I think it's fair to say that if I had been advising my attorney general, we would have used different language,'' Obama, who remains personally close to Holder, said at the time.

Typically, Obama has confronted race head-on only when it was unavoidable: in the case of the Martin verdict, or when his candidacy was threatened in the 2008 primary season by his association with the incendiary Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Obama’s former pastor.

In the few times he has strayed from that careful calculation as president, the response has been swift and largely negative. When Obama spoke up in 2009 in the case of Henry Louis Gates Jr., saying police “acted stupidly” by arresting the black scholar at his Cambridge, Mass., home, reaction was fierce. Obama subsequently backed off his remarks and sat down at the White House for peacemaking beers with Vice President Joe Biden, Gates and Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer.

"The difficulty for all of us in this country is the much deeper context in which we live,” said Joe Feagin, a sociologist at Texas A&M University, who has spent decades writing about the nation’s torturous history of race relations and the legacy of prejudice that still exists. "If he tries to bring forth this honest discussion, you can see that all hell would break loose.”

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That leaves observers scanning the margins and reading between lines whenever Obama publicly takes up the issue of race.

During the controversy over Holder’s remarks, the president was asked whether he agreed with his attorney general’s observation on the reluctance of Americans to discuss race. He paused a full five seconds before responding.

''I'm not somebody who believes that constantly talking about race somehow solves racial tensions,'' Obama said. ''I think what solves racial tensions is fixing the economy, putting people to work, making sure that people have healthcare, ensuring that every kid is learning out there. I think if we do that, then we'll probably have more fruitful conversations.''


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