On January 26, of this year I wrote, “President Obama must speak out to preserve two of the bulwarks that have held back the America’s persistent tide of racism (affirmative action and Section V of the Voting Rights Act)… The President is implored to speak on behalf of blacks who invested time, talent, treasure and hope in his re-election. As Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote a decade ago to pretend that we have achieved equality for blacks is to ‘pretend that history never happened and that the present doesn’t exist.'”
Whether he read my essay or not, the President spoke eloquently about race today. He spoke for blacks, but more importantly, he spoke to whites. Just as Jeantel found in Piers Morgan the interlocutor the prosecution failed to provide her in the Sanford courtroom, blacks need someone with credibility to help explain our shared pain, rage and frustration.
Throughout my own career, I have felt as much interpreter as lawyer – helping black plaintiffs or defendants understand and be understood by white judges, jurors and defense counsel. Highly educated blacks like the President acutely experience what W.E.B. DuBois’ referred to as “two-ness.”
They are accorded a certain measure of credibility because whites perceive us as both black and American. Today, the President lent us some of his credibility. Undoubtedly, the far-right will make him pay a hefty price for that loan.
The Zimmerman acquittal and the post-trial jury interviews demonstrate how profoundly large swaths of white America still misunderstand their black fellow Americans. The President taught a civics class on black views of America. He patiently pointed out that Blacks are not naïve about crime statistics. Blacks understand that Trayvon was more likely to be killed by another black. He carefully outlined the context of a shared experience of violence, exclusion and poverty.
Despite the brilliance of the speech, I am nagged by two issues. First, why did it take so much to encourage him to speak out? Is he reticent because he is afraid to make race relations worse? They can hardly be worse. One commentator says that we are constantly fighting a civil war, between those who advance civil rights and those who oppose that advance.
We can’t even agree whether freedom means equal opportunity, or freedom to exploit. We are at least fighting a third Civil War. Not a hot war with guns and bayonets, but a cold war in courtrooms and legislative chambers and corporate boardrooms. It is not an exaggeration to say that the nation’s security depends on how we wage the war, and who wins.
The second nagging issue is what program, policy or agenda will President Obama pursue to help make the situation better? Will he fight stand your ground laws? How? Will he offer incentives to states that repeal stand your ground? Will that fight exacerbate the controversy over States Rights? Today was a remarkable presidential moment. I am waiting for the Lyndon Johnson coda that preceded enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: “We shall overcome.”
Janice L. Mathis is regional vice president of Rainbow PUSH Coalition.