Commentary: Trayvon Martin, Barack Obama and the Silence of Powerful Black Men

Commentary: Trayvon Martin, Barack Obama and the Silence of Powerful Black Men

Why did it take nearly a month for Barack Obama, the most powerful Black man in the country, to speak out about the tragic death of an innocent Black boy in Florida?

Published March 23, 2012

Last week I wrote about Trayvon Martin and the vilification of young Black men. But in the week since this story has blown up, I've noticed another story that has been underreported: the silence of powerful adult Black men and how racial expectations are often used to prevent us from speaking up.


Let's start with President Obama. On Friday morning, the president finally weighed in on the Trayvon Martin shooting, delivering an eloquent statement as a father. "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon,” Obama said.


But why did it take nearly a month for the most powerful Black man in the country to speak out about the tragic death of an innocent Black boy in Florida? And what were the implications for the rest of us while Obama was silent?


Remember, President Obama was attacked in 2009 when he made an off-the-cuff remark at a press conference criticizing the local police department in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for arresting Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates in his own home. This time, I think, the White House initially decided to sit out the controversy so the president wouldn't become a distraction from Trayvon. But still, society's racial limitations on our first Black president deprived us of the opportunity to hear his voice early on in this important matter.


Once the president finally did speak Friday morning, the floodgates opened. Some conservatives quickly and predictably attacked the president for creating racial divisions. But more important, prominent Blacks and others started to speak as well.


Remember, on the night he was killed, Trayvon Martin, a native of Miami, had planned to watch the NBA All-Star game taking place just 19.6 miles away from where he was shot. Despite the obvious connection, most of the NBA players — except Dwyane Wade — remained silent about Trayvon Martin for weeks. Then things changed.


A few hours after Obama spoke, LeBron James and his Miami Heat teammates released a photo of the team posing in hoodies. Others started to speak up too. Even Republican candidate Mitt Romney was forced to issue a statement about Trayvon.


In a sense, Obama's voice gave permission for prominent Blacks and others to use their own voices. Some of them had been trapped by unwritten rules of conduct that seem to prohibit successful Black people from expressing outrage, lest they be labeled troublemakers or accused of playing the "race card." This is how society limits the range of appropriate public discourse. Successful Black people, and especially Black men, are still expected to conduct themselves in a manner suitable to the norms of the larger white-dominated society.


Even before he spoke, the president tried to show leadership in this case by designating another powerful Black male as his point man: Attorney General Eric Holder. But he too is limited in what he could say as the nation's chief law enforcement officer while the Justice Department is still conducting an investigation.


Finally, there's another powerful Black man involved here: City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. He is the one person with the authority to fire the bungling Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee, but so far he has moved far too cautiously in taking action, perhaps because he too is afraid of violating white society's rules of decorum for prominent Black men. Many of us never want white people to think we're acting based on emotion instead of logic and reason, and therefore, we move at a glacial pace in defending our own interests when we should be acting sooner.


Maybe now that Obama has spoken, Bonaparte and other prominent Black men who wanted to avoid this controversy will finally speak out more forcefully. As Michael Baisden put it Thursday, "We got a black man in the White House. If we can't get justice for a Black boy in Sanford, Florida, it makes no sense."



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Written by Keith Boykin


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