Little comfort in Obama’s remarks on the Martin case


President Obama’s words last week about the Zimmerman verdict were welcome. But they pale before the words I heard as a 9-year-old black boy in East Orange, N.J., from President Lyndon Johnson when he submitted the Voting Rights Act to Congress in 1965.

I was the first black student to integrate an all-white private school: Carteret School in West Orange, N.J. Later, my sister and I were two of the first three blacks at the Brookside School, now Montclair Academy, in Montclair, N.J.

I went on with my sister and a few others in the mid-1960s to integrate Washington’s Sidwell Friends School, where President Obama’s daughters, Sasha and Malia, attend classes.

I appreciate that President Obama suggests ideas about police reporting and training, examination of state and local laws, and long-term bolstering and reinforcing of African-American boys. I appreciate that he tried to explain some of the African-American experience while showing empathy and respect for the family of Trayvon Martin.

Yet in his remarks about the fairness of the judicial process, I fear he has tried to comfort us into thinking there were no systemic failures for Mr. Martin that would have been different if the dead boy had not been black.

The President did not address the disparities in resources provided to poor communities for education, or the evisceration of the food-stamp program that hurts children — especially poor black boys and girls — and prevents them from going as high or as far as they can.

The President did not speak to the attacks on women’s health by state legislatures that disproportionately hurt poor and black women. He did not speak to the destruction of the Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the need to make sure that every vote counts equally.

He did not speak to the gerrymandering of voting districts that leads to many in Congress representing districts where they do not see black boys as constituents and treat them as aliens.

President Obama did not speak of the role of the prison-industrial complex, which pushes states to include harsh penalties in criminal laws so there will be enough prisoners to make prisons profitable.

Moreover, he did not address eliminating felony disfranchisement laws and giving black boys who have been in the juvenile justice system a way to participate in their governance once they turn 18 years old. That would give them a stake in the political process and a path to redemption.

He did not speak to the private sector or the government, this summer, not hiring those boys (and other poor boys) and getting them to feel the satisfaction of a job, even as an unpaid intern.

He did not speak to the marginalization of any effort to provide institutional love to these most vulnerable Americans, leaving it to black and mixed families and people of goodwill to carry the burden alone, with little support and sometimes open hostility.

There is a history in this country of presidents trying to channel and calm the indignation of people who see the contradiction between who we say we are and what we do. President Obama wanted us to get through last Saturday’s demonstrations about the Zimmerman verdict in a peaceful manner.

A black boy such as Trayvon Martin should be free to walk anywhere where it is lawful, without fear of any other person or the police. That was part of the promise made by President Johnson in 1965. He said: “We shall overcome.”

It is time for the political class and the business class in this country to address these least of us — these young black boys — and make them the last who should be first. There have been too many sad occasions. The fear and blindness that surround this crime are indictments of all Americans.

President Obama has shifted the issue of a federal investigation of Mr. Zimmerman to Attorney General Eric Holder. But the Justice Department should not be a place where justice dies. It should be where justice springs anew.

A civil rights case should be opened, under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Hate Crimes Act, to address the violations of the civil rights of Mr. Martin.

That a state trial with no blacks on the jury got it wrong is an old story from the African-American experience. The dual sovereignties of state and federal governments were put in place by the Framers as security for the rights of the people.

I ask that the federal government provide that security to Trayvon Martin with clear words and deeds — like President Johnson’s.

Benjamin Davis is associate professor of law at the University of Toledo.