President's Trayvon speech worthy of maestro

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Watching President Barack Obama play the race card late last week in the matter of the Zimmerman trial reminded me that the guy from Chicago has truly amazing powers.

He stood in the White House briefing room, and through the magic of his own silky rhetoric and skill with metaphor, he was able animate the body of a slain African-American teenager, Trayvon Martin.

Obama pronounced the killing as racially motivated, though he didn't use the words. He didn't have to, such is his prowess. It was so smooth that few noticed. He put the killing in a racial context, and that was enough.

"You know, 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," Obama told reporters at the White House on Friday, addressing last weekend's acquittal of Martin's shooter, George Zimmerman.

Could Obama have been Trayvon Martin 35 years ago?

Perhaps. If so, then any of us could have been Trayvon Martin. And I could have been Trayvon Martin. Racial motives weren't established at trial. And reportedly, the FBI still hasn't found racial motives in George Zimmerman, who is Hispanic.

Race was established by the president of the United States, and by other political and media actors. It's a cynical business, about money and power, about keeping divisions between American tribes. There are the black tribes that see Martin in the context of the old civil rights struggles and leverage, and white tribes that see Martin being used to pummel them with racial guilt.

The algebra of all of this is as old as some musty textbook in your uncle's garage. We've seen it before. We've heard the lines, the formulations, the slogans, and some of us recite them the way we recite phrases from television commercials. We're given just enough evidence and we're told we must choose a side.

Yet none of this tribalism has anything to do with what happened the night Martin was killed. Politicians don't worry about that. They're experts at the game of tribes, and a tribal America is what nourishes them.

Americanism should be about something more than tribes and groups. Americanism should instead be about individuals, about individual promise, individual accomplishment.

Only an individual can give another respect. Tribes can't. What tribes do is battle other tribes over the spoils of government. This has nothing to do with individual respect. It has everything to do with group leverage.

Clearly, Martin and Zimmerman didn't give each other respect. Each one could and should have walked away, and didn't. Many homicides happen that way, with bad choices and stupidity and anger. Homicides are never political at the beginning. They become so only after the body is cold, when the political actors approach and heat things up.

The rest of the president's commentary was quite touching, describing how young African-American men are followed in department stores, and how he was one of those followed, or how motorists lock their doors, how women clutch their purses when a black man enters an elevator.

It was compelling talk for a president who avoids discussing race almost as much as he avoids discussing all those young African-American men shot down in Chicago every year in the street gang wars.

But first came the sound bite in which he became Trayvon Martin. He knew what he was delivering. It was no accident. The rest of it was the cover. Many will applaud him for initiating sensitive discussion about race in America, and many will miss completely what he did.

He played the race card and they didn't see it coming. He attributed racial motive to a homicide even though the race angle was never established in court. And he'll be praised. That's skill. That's power.

Despite Obama's assertion that he could have been Martin, the jury did not believe that the teenager was killed because he was black.

Many in the news media clearly believed the race angle, which reinforces American tribalism. Perhaps the worst of many violators was NBC News. That network's cynical editing of Zimmerman's 911 emergency call should cost them millions in damages.

By saying he could have been Trayvon Martin, President Obama bypassed the evidence and established his own motive. Only a maestro could accomplish this.

"I think it's going to be important for all of us to do some soul searching," Obama said, and I hope he included himself in the search.

"There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race," he continued. "I haven't seen that to be particularly productive. When politicians try to organize conversations they end up being stilted and politicized, when folks are locked into the positions they already have."

They get locked into positions with help from those who would ostensibly lead them away from ignorance and anger and fear. No one wins the game of tribes but the leaders.

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The Sunday Tribune is full of interesting and compelling stories, but one I certainly hope you read was written by William Lee. You know him as "Old School," the reporter who helps me with the column. Will Lee has written the story of Sylvester Washington, aka Two-Gun Pete, the Chicago cop with the pearl-handled revolvers who left many men dead and is a legend on the South Side. If you want to know about the real heart of Chicago, then read about Two-Gun: CLICK HERE.

jskass@tribune.com

Twitter @John_Kass

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