Although I’m not President Obama’s biggest fan (Surprise!), I admire him for speaking out on race relations in America following the George Zimmerman murder trial in Sanford, Fla. As you know, Zimmerman, a 29-year-old Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer, was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin, a black teenager who was walking through Zimmerman’s gated community.
A six-woman jury decided the prosecution failed to prove Zimmerman’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and all hell broke loose, with charges of racism flying fast and frequently. That’s the issue Obama addressed last week by speaking from the heart.
“Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” he said during a surprise appearance in the White House Press Room. Obama said he had been followed by security guards while shopping and commented that “those ... experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.”
Fortunately, Obama added that he respects the jury’s verdict.
“Once the jury has spoken, that’s how our system works,” he said. Amen! He also questioned Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which had nothing to do with the Zimmerman trial because he was acquitted on grounds that he acted in self-defense. Zimmerman shot Martin after the teenager allegedly punched him in the face and bashed his head on a concrete walkway.
Obama and other African-American leaders have called for a conversation on race relations, and I agree with that approach, but not with those who turn to violence to resolve these issues. Violence only makes things worse, as Martin’s parents recognized when they called for peaceful demonstrations in memory of their son.
We can contrast the parents’ reaction with that of black race-baiters such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, who thrives on black-vs.-white confrontations. That’s the black-racism part of the equation; on the other hand, I’ve heard angry white people claim that “Martin got what he deserved” for strolling through a gated community while wearing a dark-colored “hoodie.” Shame on them.
I’ve been a civil-rights advocate for more than 50 years, starting from when I tried to integrate my fraternity at the University of Washington. That idea went over like a lead balloon in blue-collar Seattle in the 1950s. Later, I roomed with the only black officer in my Air Force squadron because he couldn’t find local housing in Klamath Falls, Ore. And then I was involved in the (Gov. Grant) Sawyer administration’s successful efforts to desegregate Nevada casinos in the 1960s, a time when our state was known as “the Mississippi of the West.”
And finally, I remember occasions when my Mexican-born wife was discriminated against right here in the good old USA. So I can identify with George Zimmerman, who has an American father and a Peruvian mother, when people refer to him as a “white Hispanic,” which is absurd. Don’t call my kids white Hispanics; they’re proud Mexican-Americans, with an emphasis on “American.”
President Obama’s mother was a white woman from Kansas, so he understands mixed-race issues. Also, he grew up in racially diverse Hawaii and not in a black ghetto in his adopted hometown of Chicago, which is experiencing a shocking epidemic of black-on-black crime. Since George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in February 2012, nearly 500 black people have been murdered in Chicago.
So let’s have that civil conversation on race relations in America. It’s long-overdue.
Guy W. Farmer, a retired diplomat, is a lifelong civil-rights advocate.