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Opinion

Sparring, again, over race

Was President Obama playing a political race card when he observed that, if he had a son, the boy would look like Trayvon Martin? That’s what Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are claiming.

“What the president said, in a sense, is disgraceful,” Gingrich told Fox News. “Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be OK, because it didn’t look like him? Trying to turn it into a racial issue is fundamentally wrong.” Santorum said Obama was using “these types of horrible and tragic individual cases to try to drive a wedge in America.” Over the weekend, David Plouffe, a White House advisor, called the two Republican candidates’ comments “reprehensible.”

That they were — especially Gingrich’s implication that Obama would be indifferent to the killing of a white youngster. And yet Obama’s comments were more than just a statement of the obvious or an attempt to empathize with Martin’s grieving parents. It doesn’t take a lot of deconstruction to recognize that his oblique reference to skin color referred to a possibility on lots of minds — that the Florida teenager might still be alive if he hadn’t been black.

Was that appropriate? Or, in even alluding to the possibility of race as a factor, was the president prejudging George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who claims that Martin, not he, was the aggressor? According to a report Monday in the Orlando Sentinel, police sources say Martin punched Zimmerman and slammed his head into the ground, an account reportedly supported by witnesses.

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Those offended by Obama’s remarks appear driven not by genuine offense but by a desire to spar with the president. He did not indict Zimmerman but instead was careful to say that he welcomed state, federal and local investigations “to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened.” It’s possible to reserve judgment on those investigations, and to grant Zimmerman the presumption of innocence, and at the same time remind the nation that the lives of young black men too often have been undervalued in this society, and not just by the criminal justice system. That, we think, is what Obama was trying to do with his observation that Trayvon Martin could have been the son of the president of the United States.


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