Skip to main content

Obama's mistake on Trayvon Martin case

By Abigail Thernstrom, Special to CNN
updated 3:02 PM EDT, Mon July 15, 2013
Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, is joined by her son Jahvaris Fulton as she speaks to the crowd during a rally in New York City, Saturday, July 20. A jury in Florida acquitted Zimmerman of all charges related to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/27/justice/gallery/zimmerman-trial/index.html'>View photos of key moments from the trial.</a> Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, is joined by her son Jahvaris Fulton as she speaks to the crowd during a rally in New York City, Saturday, July 20. A jury in Florida acquitted Zimmerman of all charges related to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. View photos of key moments from the trial.
HIDE CAPTION
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Photos: Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Abigail Thernstrom: President Obama's 2012 statement on case was a mistake
  • She says Obama wrongly emphasized role of race in the case
  • Presidents should be above the stance of those who seek to stir racial tension, she says
  • Thernstrom: Federal charges vs. Zimmerman would exacerbate the race issue

Editor's note: Abigail Thernstrom is the vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author, most recently, of "Voting Rights -- and Wrongs: The Elusive Quest for Racially Fair Elections."

(CNN) -- Every American can make their own judgment about whether justice was served by the verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial but one thing we should all recognize: President Obama's interference in a local law enforcement matter was unprecedented and inappropriate, and he comes away from the case looking badly tarnished by his poor judgment.

"If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," the president said when asked about the case in the Rose Garden on March 23, 2012, after many had called for Zimmerman's arrest but several weeks before he was charged. "When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids."

In fact, if the president had a son, he would have been born to extraordinary privilege and raised with all the advantages of two very affluent and highly educated parents. He would have gone to tony private schools. His path in life would have been almost as dissimilar from Trayvon's as one could imagine.

Abigail Thernstrom
Abigail Thernstrom

Yes, Obama's hypothetical son and Trayvon would have shared the same brown skin color. Would that have made them interchangeable? Not unless all brown-skinned boys are the same. Does the president really believe that?

The president's remarks created a clear impression that he was motivated by one of two factors, and we can only guess as to which, or what combination of the two, was at work here. One possibility is that this is merely another manifestation of the president's well-known narcissism: No matter what the situation may be, it's all about him.

The other, more troubling possibility is that the president surrendered to his political instincts. He wants disadvantaged Americans to believe that he and his family are one of them -- despite their life of unparalleled privilege -- and he wanted the prosecutors, judge and jury to believe that this was a case about race where justice demanded a guilty verdict.

Holder: Justice must be done
Reaction to Zimmerman's acquittal

If that was his motivation -- and we cannot know, but reasonable people certainly may suspect -- then Obama should be ashamed of his effort to stir America's turbulent, dangerous racial waters. The president's role is not to be a racial agitator, and the mark of a great civil rights leader has been a determination to reject the temptations of that approach. And not that long ago -- in 2008, in Philadelphia -- candidate Obama distanced himself from such agitators.

People such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson see white racism as endemic and elevate what's wrong with America over all that is remarkably right. In his 2008 Philadelphia speech, Obama separated himself from activists of their ilk: the very people who today still hope to punish George Zimmerman.

On the campaign trail, Obama understood the sensibilities of the American people on these questions; in office, Obama seems to have lost that touch.

On Sunday, the president did once again separate himself from the voices of anger. "We are a nation of laws and the jury has spoken," he said. But if his Justice Department brings civil rights charges against Zimmerman, as the NAACP has urged and which it is reportedly still considering, the ugly racial politics of this prosecution will be undeniable.

Let us hope it never comes to that, for at that point a double tragedy will have occurred. Trayvon Martin will be dead, and our hopes for a president whose judgment is unaffected by his race will have been thoroughly and irreparably dashed.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Abigail Thernstrom.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT