The only question about President Obama’s surprise Trayvon Martin expostulation on Friday is whether it was the worst speech he’s ever given or simply the worst race-related speech. Obama has now put the presidential imprimatur on the crudest kind of racial victimology, in the process diminishing his office and undermining his own record of occasionally speaking the truth about inner-city dysfunction.

Obama begins with a perfunctory nod toward respecting the jury’s not-guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial. (Zimmerman, as the world knows, was a neighborhood-watch volunteer in a community that had been plagued by black burglaries; he shot and killed the 17-year-old Trayvon Martin during a fight after wrongly suspecting the unarmed teen of being a neighborhood intruder.) Obama then launches into a lesson, presumably for the edification of clueless whites, about the “context” of the trial and “how [black] people have responded to it and how people are feeling.” According to Obama, there is nary a law-abiding black man today who has not been the object of fear and suspicion as he goes about his business:

There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.

And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

There is no question that in some “contexts,” as Obama would put it, black males elicit heightened scrutiny. In some neighborhoods, shopkeepers do closely watch, if not actually trail, young black males who enter their stores. And there is also no question that being viewed with fear when you are free of any criminal intent is infuriating and can lead to a humiliating sense of being a second-class citizen. This is an experience that all Americans should regret.

But the overwhelming reason for such a reaction, where it exists, is astronomically higher rates of black crime. In New York City, blacks commit 70 percent of all robberies and 63 percent of all grand larcenies, though they are just 23 percent of the population; whites commit 4 percent of all robberies and a little over 10 percent of all grand larcenies, though they are 35 percent of the population. Every American city with a black population shows comparable disparities. In some “contexts,” black crime is even celebrated. Earsnot, a New York graffiti vandal glorified in the documentary Infamy, mocks the trusting retail managers who don’t follow him as he cases their stores for merchandise: “You have that customer-shopkeeper thing going on, and they have no idea that you’re stealing—no idea. Or, they know that you’re stealing, and they see you in there mad times, and they still can’t stop me because I’m so nice.” According to Infamy’s admiring producers, Earsnot and his crew “commit grand larceny” every day, a walking crime spree that has undoubtedly led many a floor supervisor to adopt exactly the defensive posture that Obama condemns.

The newly rechristened “bash mobs” that have been terrorizing pedestrians and workers in, among other locations, downtown Chicago, Washington, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, are a black phenomenon, though a squeamish press shrinks from pointing that out. Someone who has been attacked by, or is simply the witness of, rampaging black teens is unlikely to be blasé if he later sees a group of rowdy black youth approaching. Obama may think that a heightened pulse rate or a tightened grip on a purse is an overreaction to such gratuitous violence, but it is an inevitable one. Here is a proposal: For a good five-year stretch, blacks bring their crime rate down to white and Asian levels. Once it becomes widely understood that blacks are no more likely to steal, rob, rape, or shoot than whites or Asians, we’ll see if blacks still elicit the defensive reactions that Obama alleges in elevators and department stores.

Obama grudgingly acknowledges the elevated black crime rate, only to soft-pedal it: “I think the African-American community is also not naive in understanding that statistically somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else.” No, not “probably.” “Statistically,” Trayvon Martin was absolutely more likely to be shot by a peer than by “somebody else.” That does not make the killing of Trayvon Martin any less tragic, but the fact remains that blacks are gunning down blacks at an astronomically higher rate than whites are. Blacks commit upwards of 80 percent of all shootings in New York City, for example; whites, between 1 and 2 percent. New York police officers hope against hope every time that they are called to a shooting incident that they will find a white perpetrator, to balance out the sad monotony of black (and Hispanic) gun violence. They are almost always disappointed.

Obama appears as ignorant about the violent aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict. “If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family,” he announced righteously. He should start reminding. “People protesting George Zimmerman’s acquittal marched along Crenshaw Boulevard [in South Central Los Angeles last] Monday night, stomping on cars, chasing bystanders and storming a Wal-Mart,” reported the Los Angeles Times. Any last vestiges of the Rainbow Coalition quickly disintegrated. Fellow Trayvon Martin protester Cuauhtemoc Negrete was punched in the back of the head and robbed of his bike, an attack that he attributes to anti-Latino bias. In Hollywood the next night, “calls started flooding into dispatchers about 8:30 P.M. of roaming groups of youths, about 10 or 15 to a group, running into streets, stealing from stores and robbing pedestrians.” Businesses in downtown Oakland, California, are still sweeping up the broken glass after several days of vandalism, including a hammer assault on a restaurant waiter. Downtown Oakland perfected this drill after the 2009 and 2010 anti-police riots.

More significant than Obama’s underplaying of black criminality, however, is his move to “contextualize” it: “Black folks do interpret the reasons for that [crime rate] in a historical context. We understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country.” Try telling the fiercely law-abiding residents of Central Harlem and the South Bronx that a teen who mugs an elderly lady needs to be understood “in a historical context.” These brave proponents of law and order, who faithfully attend police-community meetings to show support for their cops, know that what leads a young boy to shoot at a rival gang member is not a lynching from a century ago but the breakdown of parental authority and self-control today. The “root causes” excuse for crime undermines the efforts of these heroic urban watchdogs to strengthen bourgeois norms. And even if it were the case that the primary determinant of current black criminality were this country’s despicable history of slavery and segregation, the only people who can overcome that legacy now are blacks themselves, through self-help and personal responsibility. (University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax has forcefully made this point.)

Obama embraces the “racist criminal-justice system” conceit as well: “The African-American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.” In fact, the effort in the academy to prove such ongoing racial disparities consistently fails, without denting the zeal with which advocates peddle the poisonous idea.

Obama’s prescriptions for the alleged failure of white America to understand black anger at the Zimmerman case are arguably worse than his diagnosis of the causes of that anger. He wants more police agencies to collect racial data on traffic stops and other enforcement activity, and he calls on the Department of Justice to help local police agencies “think about potential racial bias.” The Zimmerman case was not about purportedly racist police stops, of course. But police profiling is a must-have component of the racial-victimology toolbox. Such data-collection mandates accomplish only one thing: providing fodder for lawsuits against the police, since every police agency accurately targeting its resources against crime will produce racially disparate enforcement data. The Department of Justice is already forcing itself on local law enforcement regarding “anti-bias” training, regardless of its lack of expertise in policing.

We also need to do more to “bolster and reinforce our African-American boys,” according to Obama, “and to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them.” Reality check: the country has spent hundreds of billions of dollars over the last five decades trying to uplift black boys (and girls). Virtually the entire federal and state education establishment is focused on a single goal: closing the achievement gap between white and black students, no matter the cost. Under President George W. Bush, Washington imposed onerous testing and data-collection mandates on schools in the hope of equalizing black and white test scores, even if schools did so by undereducating their highest-performing students. If a black boy simply graduates from high school with a GPA that passes the laugh test, private colleges across the nation will beat down his door to recruit him. Public universities insist on the right to use equally blatant racial preferences to admit their own treasured store of underqualified black students. If that black undergraduate finishes college, elite employers and professional schools will zealously seek him out. Individual philanthropists in cities large and small rush to offer high school and college scholarships to black boys; all that the beneficiaries have to do is stay in school and out of jail. Foundations roll out program after program to keep black boys off the street. Captains of industry have become experts in school reform in order to improve the life prospects of black boys.

But this effort seems lost on Obama. He proposes, as if it were a novel idea, gathering together “business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African-American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that—and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed.” Like every other such convocation, with its inevitable tail of taxpayer and privately funded programs, this gabfest will fail, because it omits the one group of adults who would make a difference in black boys’ lives: their fathers. If black boys knew that their fathers, not just “their country,” “care about them and value them,” in Obama’s words; if their fathers were married to their mothers and involved in their moral formation; if those boys were raised with the expectation that they themselves must be responsible for their own children, this futile parade of programs could finally come to an end.

Obama’s silence about black family breakdown at this particular moment, when he knew that his words would get maximum attention, is a monumentally lost opportunity. It is also deeply puzzling, given that in the past Obama has admirably broken the taboo against mentioning the toll of fatherlessness—if not as often as the catastrophe merits, at least more than the race industry would like. His failure to address the issue now suggests that the rhetorical conventions of black victimology, once activated, are so powerful that they crush anything that stands in their way.

As for Obama’s final call “for all of us to do some soul-searching, . . . to ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can”: of course we should never condone or cultivate prejudice. But to turn one incident into a symbol of national anti-black racism is ludicrous on every front. Even were there any indication that Zimmerman was a blind bigot (which he was not), that fact would not implicate the country at large.

Or perhaps Obama is impugning the jury here, though criminal-law experts are virtually unanimous in judging the acquittal a fair response to the prosecution’s charges. But if we’re going to do some soul-searching, Obama could ask what drives the recent urban rampages or greatly asymmetrical black-on-white crime. If white teens were marauding through black neighborhoods assaulting passersby and store employees, the Justice Department would have sent in armies of federal prosecutors, if not the National Guard, faster than you can say “hate crime.” Black parents are allegedly warning their children against racist whites based on one tragic incident; in any other “context,” that would be called “profiling.”

Until now, Obama has left the race-mongering to his administration and has largely kept race out of his own self-presentation. That is as it should be, regardless of a president’s skin color. The aspiration of color-blindness is an essential one, and increasingly within reach. Now, however, Obama is being celebrated as “really” a “black president,” not just one who happens to be black. But if a white president lectured blacks about why whites are losing patience with black victimology, that would rightly be viewed as a betrayal of the office.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next