Obama’s Response to the Verdict Was Right

2012's "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon" and this year's "a jury has spoken" were both pitch-perfect.

Pool/Getty Images
Pool/Getty Images

(The Root) — Though it’s compellingly argued and passionately felt, I disagree with the assessment of my colleague at The Root, Keli Goff, that President Barack Obama’s statement about Saturday’s George Zimmerman verdict was disappointing or somehow offensive. After all, everyone has a part to play in this tragedy, and Obama’s is unlike anyone else’s.

While he’s the most visible — and powerful — black man in the world, he’s also head of government and head of state. And in those dual capacities, he ought to speak out — and has spoken out — in support of Trayvon Martin’s family. But it’s also his job to represent the American system, with all its attendant flaws.

That’s the difference between being a black politician and a president who’s also black.

Keli’s completely right that after Trayvon’s death, America needs to have an “honest conversation about why his death happened.” But while the president can start that conversation, he can’t tell people what to think.

Obama’s toed a fine — even cautious — line up to now when it comes to this tragedy. Unlike talk-show hosts and late-night Twitter denizens, the weight of his words always has lasting impact. He’s walked that line because that’s what’s been called for.

But no matter how demoralizing the trial’s result was, President Obama — the nation’s dad, if you will — doesn’t have the option of disrespecting the jury’s verdict, duly rendered, even if the trial that we all just saw couldn’t provide justice after the needless killing of a teenage boy. And any statement that the president makes now could later be seen to prejudice, and thus weaken, any case that the Justice Department might pursue.

Attorney General Eric Holder signaled today that he will bring a civil rights case against Zimmerman, and the more Obama wades in, the cloudier those legal waters become.

The situation was different last spring. Back then Obama was right to remind Americans that if he’d had his own son, that son would, indeed, “look like Trayvon.” It was both a timely show of solidarity, and a subtle acknowledgement that as a black man and father, Obama could have easily found himself standing in the Martin family’s shoes.