WASHINGTON — At the outset of the Trayvon Martin saga, President Obama took sides in the racially fraught debate. Now that Martin's killer, George Zimmerman, has been acquitted, Obama finds himself in a role for which he is unusually qualified, but which he has sought for most of his term to avoid: racial healer-in-chief.
The president of the United States is a lawyer who taught constitutional law. He is the author of a book whose subtitle is, "A Story of Race and Inheritance." His March 2008 "race speech" is already read as a masterpiece of American rhetoric, and in it he offered a choice:
"We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle — as we did in the O.J. trial — or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina — or as fodder for the nightly news," he said. "Or… we can come together and say, 'Not this time.'"
Obama said in that speech that "race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now," but the politics of race proved intensely and obviously distracting for the first black president, who largely avoided the sort of explicit campaign around racial understanding that President Bill Clinton once led. He stepped once, by accident, onto this charged terrain, saying the police officer who arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates in his own home had acted "stupidly." In the ensuing firestorm, he brought Gates and the police officer who arrested him together at the White House for an obsessively-covered conversation about race in the form of a "beer summit."
The issue then, like now, was one based in African-American anger over lasting stereotypes casting innocent black men as criminals by default. Supporters of the police in that case said Gates' supporters were too quick to assign overt racism on the part of authorities. They counted Obama among that group.
Almost exactly four years later, Obama offered a rare comment on a local homicide in Sanford, Fla.: "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," the president said, making the killing personal — though he avoided his mistake in the Gates situation of weighing in on the merits of the case. "I think [Trayvon's parents] are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and we are going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened."
And in the case of the Martin shooting and subsequent Zimmerman trial, the criticisms were the same. When Obama said his son would look like Trayvon, Zimmerman's supporters accused him of fueling the storyline that Zimmerman is a racist.
Now George Zimmerman's acquittal is Obama's next beer summit moment, a chance to try and bring the divided sides of a racial fight together after they had been starkly divided by the collision of America's lasting biases and the justice system. Obama's style has been to use his own identity to resolve intractable racial contradictions — between his own white grandmother's fear of a black stranger and his own black identity, between Gates's justified outrage and a police officer's snap judgment. It's a style that critics on both sides often find intellectually dissatisfying, but which has at times found broad national emotional appeal.
The White House has steadfastly declined to comment on the Zimmerman trial as it has unfolded before a national audience on cable TV. Now that the trial is over, Obama will not be able to avoid a conversation about race and justice that is sure to grip the country in the coming day.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday night.
But this is a conversation Obama has been having, in public and in private, for much of his professional ife. He brought together the two sides after the Gates case and usd his unique position as the first black president in American to discuss a subject that has been a focus of his professional career. Now that the Zimmerman trial — a deadly encounter, not just an infuriating one — the role that is open for the President of the United States is as healer.