The day George Zimmerman was acquitted was the end of a very brief moment in which I gave America the benefit of the doubt. Six days later, Barack Obama, the man responsible for that temporary suspension of disbelief, gave a speech that drove home for me how foolish I had been.
The president acknowledged the pain many of us felt, but, ever the peddler of hope, he stressed that “as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better.”
I didn’t believe it when he said it, and it sounds even sillier to me now so many years later.
Obama brought up his daughters. “Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn’t mean we’re in a post-racial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But when I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are — they’re better than we were — on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited.”
When it came to racism, Obama always gave this country more credit than it deserved. That’s why he became president. To be a Black politician, you have to devote your life to lying to the white electorate — to telling America it doesn’t hate Black people. In his defense, though, Obama appears to actually believe the things he says.
I found that cute for him, but I was taught never to ignore how racist a sizable chunk of the population is — and all the dangers that come with that. My mother was, and is, too Christian to let me walk out into the world ignorant of that.
Even so, I hoped for a different outcome at Zimmerman’s trial. For once, I wanted to think America was capable of decency. That somehow Zimmerman might be seen for what he is: a violent vigilante masquerading as a volunteer watchman.
Then the jury reminded me and anyone else in doubt exactly where we live.
A few weeks later, I was scheduled to speak at a conference in Orlando. A middle-aged white man picked me up at the airport and took me to my hotel. On the way, he made a point to note that we were passing Sanford, Florida. “It’s unfortunate what happened out here,” he said.
Yes, it was, I thought, though it became clear we had different ideas about why it was unfortunate. I can’t recall exactly how he said it, but I know he blamed Trayvon Martin for his own killing. That he shouldn’t have fought back.
I’m polite in that southern way, but not that polite. I have a firm way of ending a conversation if need be. I employed it then and let the silence calm me down.