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Why President Obama Won’t Speak Out on the Trayvon Martin Slaying

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The tweet from the White House on the Trayvon Martin slaying was much briefer than even the brief number of words allowed by twitter and essentially said that there was nothing to say. White House press secretary Jay Carney was even more emphatic when asked whether the President had any comment to make on the case and simply said “I don’t have any conversations to report to you.” Barring any dramatic new compelling turn in the case, that will be exactly where matters will stand. The Martin case is no different than other controversial cases almost always involving racial issues that Obama has been pressed to speak out on. Obama won’t for equally compelling reasons

Despite racism, collusion, incompetence, and plain bungling by a discredited Sanford, Florida police department, the hear no evil, see no evil stance of Seminole County prosecutors towards the self-admitted shooter, George Zimmerman, and a grotesque stand your ground state law that is in essence a license to kill, the  Martin atrocity is a state matter. The best that the feds can and will do is what they have done and that’s order an FBI probe into possible civil rights violations in the slaying of Martin. But that is mostly perfunctory, and standard in controversial race cases. In the end, the FBI and Justice Department will defer to state prosecutors.  A statement from Obama who has absolutely no legal power to intervene in the Martin case would have no effect on the case.

This adds to the misunderstanding of the law about Obama's powers. But it doesn't answer the question whether Obama has any moral obligation to speak out in the Martin killing. The painful answer to that is also no. As much as many would cheer the president if he breaks political protocol and weighs in on Martin, it won’t happen.

Obama, as all sitting presidents, doesn't take positions on controversial state issues, and that's the key. They are state issues, and to interfere is to step into a political minefield that would do far more harm than good. It would violate the rigid separation of federal and state powers. It would open the floodgate for any and every individual and group that has a legal wrong, grievance, or injustice to expect, even demand, that the president speak out on their cause. While tens of thousands nationally and globally are rallying behind the demand for arrest and prosecution of Zimmerman, there are millions more that quietly and openly demand that Florida officials resists any rush to judgment about the Martin killing.  

Presidential statements on a controversial issue will polarize, and fuel political backlash. This would certainly be the case if Obama utters a word about Martin. In fact, the Martin slaying is a near textbook example of the fury and passion that racial leaden cases and issues always stir. Martin is African-American, and his self-admitted killer is non-black. Obama is African-American and there's rarely been a moment during his tenure in the White House that he hasn't been relentlessly reminded of that. The one time that he gingerly ventured into the minefield on a racially charged local issue was his mild rebuke of the white officer that cuffed Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates in 2009. The reaction was instant and rabid. Polls after his mild rebuke showed that a majority of whites condemned Obama for backing Gates and, even more ominously, expressed big doubts about his policies.

The president relearned a bitter lesson. If you speak out on an issue that involves race, police authority, and local law and local matters you will pay a heavy political price for it. While presidents have routinely spoken out on the deaths of police officers, political initiatives in states, and other local issues, there is no implication or inference of political partisanship or interference in a state matter. Speaking out on a controversial racial issue, as Martin is, would have a direct political inference, namely that the president is taking sides. In an election year, this would have be even more problematic. The GOP presidential contenders would be quick to pounce and would lambaste Obama as playing the race card and inflaming passions. Or, more charitably, that he was butting into an issue that he has no authority over, and that this is yet another example of the White House’s over reach on local matters.  

The Martin atrocity did something that a statement from Obama couldn’t do. It cast another horrific glare on the gaping racial and legal disparities and flaws in the administration of the criminal justice system, and a deep soul search on how a law could be so badly perverted to claim the live of an innocent and defenseless young man. The one certainty is that while Obama will not speak out on Martin, there have been enough hints and signs from the white House that he will keep an eye on developments in the case. And this is a reasonable expectation of any one that sits in the White House.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour on KTYM Radio Los Angeles streamed on podcast on and internet TV broadcast on Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter:

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Tags: and, department, florida, george, justice, martin, obama, president, sanford, trayvon, More…zimmerman


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Earl Ofari Hutchinson, national commentator and radio host, slices through the political spin to provide insight on today's news.

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