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I think there were two noteworthy elements in President Obama’s recent remarks radicalizing the Trayvon Martin case, one utterly familiar but the other less so.
First the familiar: “You know,” Obama began, “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.” Our Narcissist in Chief, in short, paid the dead teenager the highest compliment he could imagine: he said he reminded him of … himself.
Liberals often pride themselves for their empathy. Indeed, they often sound as though they monopolize it. But empathy, like humility, is a virtue notably absent from the Obama persona. It requires standing in someone else’s shoes, seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, feeling — or, like Bill Clinton, claiming to feel — someone else’s pain. Obama, however, has less empathy than a doorknob. The closest he comes is occasionally deigning to share his self-absorbed feelings with us, asking us to feel his pain.
Less familiar and hence more interesting was his attempt to explain, and at first implicitly but then explicitly to justify, why blacks are having such a hard time accepting the jury’s failure to convict George Zimmerman of murder or at least manslaughter. He wanted, he said, “to just talk a little bit about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling.” You have to understand, he in effect explained, that we blacks are the products of America’s racist history, and that’s why we don’t see things the same way others do. “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 — that doesn’t go away.”
Blacks, he explains, have a history of being the victims of discrimination, of being profiled, of seeing others see them as potential criminals, and that history not only informs but explains their current attitudes and behavior.
And you know, I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.
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. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.
Now, this isn’t to say that the African-American community is naive about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that 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, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history. [Emphasis added]
Intentionally or not, this attempt to contextualize black attitudes does “exaggerate” the responsibility of “history” for current attitudes and behavior. It does “make excuses” for blacks being both the victims and perpetrators of violence by pointing to the “historical context.”
When Obama says blacks “do interpret the reasons for that [their being over-represented as both victims and perpetrators of violence] in a historical context,” the clear implication is that non-blacks who are unwilling to assign responsibility for “the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods” to “a very difficult history” are simply being dumb, oblivious to the stranglehold of “historical context” on the present. They don’t understand that blacks’ history “doesn’t go away,” presumably because their own cultural clothing is so lightly soiled by “history” that the stains come out easily in the wash. They are, in a word, free of it. Blacks, by contrast, are still slaves — not because of slavery itself, which is long gone, but to its history, effects, and lingering “context.”
Obama’s use of the history excuse is eerily and ironically reminiscent of the great novelist Robert Penn Warren’s perceptive discussion, in his short but penetrating little book on The Legacy of the Civil War (1961), of how The War gave white Southerners “The Great Alibi” that explained all their shortcomings and hence excused them. “By the Great Alibi,” Warren wrote,
the South explains, condones, and transmutes everything…. By the Great Alibi pellagra, hookworm, and illiteracy are all explained, or explained away, and mortgages are converted into badges of distinction. Laziness becomes the aesthetic sense, blood-lust rising from a matrix of boredom and resentful misery becomes a high sense of honor….
“The Southerner, with his Great Alibi,” Warren explains, unwittingly foreshadowing Obama, “feels trapped by history.” Even the entire problem of race, “according to the Great Alibi, is the doom defined by history — by New England slavers, Midwestern abolitionists.”
Explanation that assigns responsibility for attitudes and behavior to social forces always bears the risk of absolving people of responsibility for their own actions, of sliding inexorably from explaining to explaining away. The view, moreover, that blacks are somehow uniquely still controlled by their own history is ultimately patronizing and insulting, trapping them in perpetual victimhood. For both blacks and whites, in short, history — make that History — can sometimes explain, but it can never excuse.
In a New York Times (of all places) column six years ago, “History As Alibi,” Maureen Dowd (of all people) concluded with what turns out to be a prescient comment on our current president’s use of the history alibi: “History is just the fanciest way possible of wanting to deny or distract attention from what’s happening now.”