Last July President Obama addressed the nation about the shameful George Zimmerman verdict delivered in Sanford, Florida. He famously claimed that Trayvon Martin could have been his son and went into detail about how “very few African-American men” could say that they haven’t been racially profiled:
“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”
A little over a year later the president addressed the nation about the Ferguson, Missouri, police killing of 18-year-old, unarmed Michael Brown. The remarks stand out for what the second-term president left out. He didn’t once mention race.
This strategy defies logic. Ferguson is not one of those instances where racism exists only in the eyes of the oppressed. Mainstream outlets such as the Washington Post have reported that racism and segregation play a role in Ferguson policing. Race informs the posts of thousands of social media users—including those using the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag. If that’s not enough, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson announced on Wednesday that “race relations” are now a “top priority” for the department. This year alone we’ve seen the police-involved deaths or attacks on unarmed black people including Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Marlene Pinnock, Ursula Ore and Ezell Ford*. Even the jackasses who accuse people of “playing the race card” would agree that race is a factor in the Brown shooting and its aftermath. And yet we have the First Black President of the United States avoiding even the slightest mention of race and racism when discussing Michael Brown.
The president hit all the obligatory marks: He called the Brown death “tragic.” Of course he exhorted some protestors stating, “There is never an excuse for violence against police or those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism and looting.” He celebrated the leadership of Missouri Governor Jay Nixon who let five days pass before arriving in Ferguson. And (thankfully) he said, “There is also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.” And yet we couldn’t even get a euphemism about race in the Brown case.
The answer may lie in two factors: 1) Unlike Martin, Brown was killed by a police officer rather than a random neighborhood watch fanatic. And 2) There has been rioting in response to Brown’s slaying. From the former we see how Obama won’t take on the intersection between race and police violence as an issue, even in urgent situations. From the latter we see what appears to be the politics of respectability at work.
I get the optics; Obama can’t in any way identify with civil unrest. But what about telling the truth about police brutality against black people? In his remarks he instructed listeners to “remember how this started. We lost a young man, Michael Brown, in heartbreaking and tragic circumstances.” That’s the understatement of 2014. Brown wasn’t “lost” to us; he was snatched from his family and community by a still-unnamed cop. The circumstances aren’t just “heartbreaking” and “tragic.” They are unacceptable. But we won’t see the president pull out that folksy tone he uses when chiding black audiences for making excuses and blaming colonialism for Africa’s economic problems. For Michael Brown, he emphasizes law and order—even though a policeman was the one who pulled the trigger.
*This post has been updated since publication.