Abigail Thernstrom Wrong on “Obama’s Mistake in Trayvon Martin Case”

Abigail Thernstrom, vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote an article for CNN.com that shows a remarkable ignorance and insensitivity about the problem of race for African-Americans in this country. (http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/15/opinion/thernstrom-trayvon-martin-obama/index.html?hpt=hp_t4)

The author of Voting Rights – and Wrongs: The Elusive Quest for Racially Fair Elections, faulted President Obama for his statement on March 12, 2012, shortly after Trayvon Martin was shot, for saying, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon…When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids.”

Whatever criticism one might have about President Obama, one cannot say that he has gone out of his way to “lean in” toward black people. In fact, as Thernstrom herself acknowledges in her article, the president effectively distanced himself from race and from “agitators” in his speech, “A More Perfect Union,” delivered in March, 2008.  “The president’s role is not to be a racial agitator,” Thernstrom writes, “and the mark of a great civil rights leader has been a determination to reject the temptations of that approach…People such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson see white racism as endemic and elevate what’s wrong with America over all that is remarkably right,” she continues.

She praised Obama for “once again” separating himself from the voices of anger on Sunday, speaking after George Zimmerman had been found “not guilty” of second degree murder and manslaughter in the death of Trayvon Martin. “But if his Justice Department brings civil rights charges against Zimmerman, as the NAACP has urged, and which it is reportedly still considering, the ugly racial politics of this prosecution will be undeniable.”

Thernstrom says that if President Obama had a son, “he would have been born to extraordinary privilege and raised with all of the advantages of two very affluent and highly educated parents. He would have gone to private schools. His path in life would have been almost as dissimilar from Trayvon’s as one could imagine.”

All that is true…but what Ms. Thernstrom does not seem to understand is that African-Americans, no matter how affluent or well-educated, are profiled all of the time. If the president had a son, he would have been subject to such profiling, and anyone who is African-American knows that. Many prominent and well-educated African-Americans have been profiled and treated quite poorly by law enforcement officers. It is a sore spot, a blazing fire in the lives of African-Americans, and time has not made it any better.

Just because Mr. Obama is president does not mean that he has forgotten what it is to be black in America. Thernstrom says that “the president …wants disadvantages Americans to believe that he and his family are one of them…despite their life of unparalleled privilege.” The bottom line is, Ms. Thernstrom, is that at the end of the day, Obama IS one of them, and he knows it.

A couple of weeks ago in New Albany, Ohio, a young black man was walking in his neighborhood. Sixteen-year old Xvavier Brandon, an honor student, was walking to school, when, out of nowhere, he found himself confronted by  police. “A gun was pointed at me and handcuffs were put on me, and that’s everything that’s done to a criminal,” Brandon said.

This kid was exempt from final exams, said an article in The Columbus Dispatch, because of good test scores at his high school.  He was minding his own business, in a neighborhood where he had every right to be, walking to football practice. There had been in that neighborhood, however, some break-ins. Some residents were wary and nervous. So when a resident saw Brandon walking down his street, he got nervous and called the police, telling them that there was someone walking down the street who might have something to do with the break-ins.

Brandon was unaware that he had been viewed as suspicious, profiled, one might say. He continued to walk down the street, listening to music with his headphones in his ears. He didn’t know anything was wrong until he heard a loud shout and turned around to see a gun pulled and pointed at him.

He was told to drop to the ground and was handcuffed; he was asked if he had any jewelry on him or in his backpack. The young man, on the ground and completely humiliated, says he tried to turn his face so that if anyone saw him and the police officer, they wouldn’t recognize him. It was only after another officer turned up about 15 minutes later and recognized Brandon as a teammate of his son’s on the football team that the youth was released.

Brandon was not disadvantaged. New Albany is one of the most prominent neighborhoods in the Columbus metropolitan area. One might say that Brandon is privileged and well-educated, and yet, that did not keep him from being suspected of being someone a problem in that neighborhood, and accosted by police.

Because of preconceived ideas about black people, many, many African-Americans are profiled daily. Ms. Thernstrom said that “Obama’s hypothetical son and Trayvon would have shared the same brown skin. Would that have made them interchangeable?” The answer is, unfortunately, that in many cases, the answer is “yes.”

The president’s comment or observation that had he a son he would look like Trayvon was not, therefore, out of line, or indicative of a president who “surrendered to his political instincts.”  He was speaking the truth as it is for African-Americans in this country. To be sure, there are a host of problems in the African-American community; the fact that African-American youth shoot each other at alarming rates, with hardly a whimper from the larger society – is a major issue, but that does not negate the fact that African-Americans are profiled daily and that yes, if the president had a son, he would be in danger of being profiled just because of the color of his skin.

The sad truth is that white racism is endemic, and it is something that nobody really wants to deal with or talk about.  The result is that bad behavior keeps on happening. George Zimmerman profiled Trayvon and, regardless of what happened afterward, Trayvon is now dead. It’s nothing new, Ms. Thernstrom. It is part of the way African-Americans live…

A candid observation ….

Zimmerman’s Attorney has Offensive Strategy

 There are several things which are troubling about the George Zimmerman trial, but the most recent include blaming Trayvon Martin for his own death,  and making the case that because a toxicology report showed that he had marijuana in his system that he might have been behaving in such a way that may have forced Zimmerman to act in self-defense.

When Mark  O’Mara, Zimmerman’s attorney, said to Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mother, that Trayvon may have caused his own death, it reminded me of countless trials where women, raped, were blamed in court, for their assault.  Because of what a woman wore, or how she carried herself, or her sexual history, defenders of rapists were quick to suggest – and, apparently, juries were just as quick to agree – that the woman brought about her attack. It has always been offensive to hear that in rape trials; it is equally as offensive to hear in this second-degree murder trial. Because Martin may have defended himself against a man whom he did not know who was following him, O’Mara is suggesting that Martin was the aggressor. His death, if the reasoning is followed, was his own fault.

It is a totally offensive premise and suggestion.

The second issue is the suggestion that the presence of marijuana in Martin’s blood somehow contributed to behavior which was suspicious. It is a ludicrous argument. If the presence of marijuana in one’s bloodstream made people act “suspicious” to the degree that he or she had to be followed and observed for possible criminal behavior, there would be few students in high schools or college. O’Mara is a brilliant attorney and is doing a good job for his client, but at what cost?

In an article that appeared on U.S. News on NBCNews.com in March, 2012, it was stated that an empty baggie that contained residue of marijuana was found in Martin’s locker at his high school. (http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/03/26/10872124-trayvon-martin-was-suspended-three-times-from-school?lite)  In that article, a family spokesman said that there was no substance found. Toxicology reports, however,  have apparently showed that the teen had marijuana in his system the day he was killed by Zimmerman.

In spite of research that shows that marijuana use does not make one aggressive – or indeed, has little effect on behavior at all, it is clear that O’Mara is going to make the case that young Martin was a “drug user,” lumping him in with those who use drugs that do in fact cause violent and aggressive behavior. It is no secret that young black youth are searched and punished for severely for marijuana possession, but that fact will be glossed over. It is also a fact that many teens use marijuana on a fairly regular basis.  In an article which came out in December, 2012, it was stated that :Marijuana use is holding steady among eighth, 10th- and 12th-graders in the United States.”  ( http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2012/12/19/marijuana-use-holds-steady-among-u-s-teens/) .It’s not just teens, the article stated; it’s kids as young as 8th grade! The article said that statistics proving marijuana use increase was gotten from studying 45,000 8th, 9th and 10th graders. In other words, a whole lot of kids smoke marijuana.

But O’Mara’s job is to get his client off, and it feels like there will be no justice for Martin. The young man will be made out to be a “druggie” who was probably, as Zimmerman said, “acting suspicious.”  Martin’s mother said in a TIME article in 2012, “They’ve killed my son. Now they’re trying to kill his reputation.” ( http://healthland.time.com/2012/03/27/did-marijuana-use-sentence-trayvon-martin-to-death/)

What O’Mara is doing is good defense attorney stuff – but it is offensive, as offensive as it is when defense attorneys defend rapists and suggest that the accusing woman brought about her own rape. If anything, it seems like George Zimmerman brought about this entire tragedy by following Trayvon when he was asked not to, but that point is not being argued very effectively by the prosecution.

As a mother, my heart aches for Sybrina Fulton, whose son is dead, and for Gladys Zimmerman, whose son is on trial, but my aching for Fulton is accompanied by anger and a sense of insult that Mark O’Mara has put in the minds of the jurors that all of this was Martin’s fault.

Just like women who have been raped have been reluctant to come forward for fear of a lack of justice, so have been black people been reluctant. Over the years, all-white juries have ignored evidence and convicted black people at will. The killers of Emmet Till got off when it was clear they had killed the young black boy. Mamie Till, Emmet’s mother, had the strength to stand in and through the cloud of injustice that served as the “trial” for her son’s killer’s…in spite of not receiving justice.  Emmet Till was thought to have caused his own death as well, by whistling at a white woman.

The verdict has yet to be announced. It may be that Zimmerman is convicted of something, if not second degree murder, then something, which will make it seem like justice has been done. That is the hope, but it is a dim hope as the defense works to Trayvon seem like a young black thug who brought about his own demise.

It is insulting.

A candid observation …