Nobody knows what really happened during the tragic shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida last month. As the facts stand, it doesn't look too good for the shooter, George Zimmerman. Martin was unarmed and was on the phone with his girlfriend at the time of the shooting, apparently telling her he was being followed. Zimmerman has a troubling criminal history that includes an arrest for assaulting a police officer, an accusation of domestic violence, and a restraining order filed against him by his ex girlfriend. Martin on the other hand, had no criminal record, was a good student and was regarded as gentle by everyone who knew him.
Zimmerman should of course be presumed innocent, but the national outcry over his release is certainly understandable given the context of the killing.
Throughout the history of the United States, countless African Americans have been illegally killed by law enforcement officers and people in positions of authority. In Miami alone, 7 African Americans have been shot and killed this year by police, with several being unarmed and posing no immediate threat to the public. Nobody will ever forget the killing of African immigrant Amadou Diallo, who was shot 41 times by NYPD officers in 1999, or the unarmed Oscar Grant shot at point blank range in Oakland in 2009 by BART officer Johannes Mehserle. The fact is, the killing of unarmed black men in America is a common occurrence, and the resentment felt by the African American community towards the police is not only understandable, but justified.
President Obama spoke eloquently about the killing of Trayvon, saying 'If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon'. Obama continued; 'I think [Trayvon's parents] are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and we are going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened."
Sadly, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have decided to play the pathetic 'White male minority' card used by Republicans to appeal to their base. Gingrich stated that Obama's comments were "disgraceful" and that "Any young American of any ethnic background should be safe, period. We should all be horrified, no matter what the ethnic background. Is the president suggesting that, if it had been a white who'd been shot, that would be OK, because it wouldn't look like him? That's just nonsense."
Santorum chimed in stating that Obama should "Not use these types of horrible and tragic individual cases to try to drive a wedge in America."
Obama of course, was doing nothing of the sort. The president was simply articulating what the African American community often feels -- that people who look just like them seem to get shot all the time. This isn't prejudging a situation or implying that white people aren't killed unjustifiably -- Obama was only showing empathy to parents of a dead child killed in extremely suspicious circumstances.
Politicians like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum like to pretend that racism doesn't exist in America, that the playing field is level and African Americans are poor or shot by the police because they deserve it. While study after study after study confirm that poverty and racism are structural and cyclical, rich white men often cannot, or do not want to understand that their society produces these phenomenon. Why? Because their society also produces people like them -- rich and untouchable. Perhaps if Gingrich or Santorum were unable to hail taxis due to their skin color, or targeted by the police for no other reason than their ethnic background, they might show some understanding when it comes to unarmed black teenagers shot for no apparent reason.
Instead, both politicians have decided to cash in on another delicate moment in U.S. racial history, coming down on the side of the powerful instead of the victims. According to Gingrich and Santorum, expressing sympathy for minorities is akin to racism -- a mind boggling leap of logic only possible in today's Republican party.
Sadly, that is the story of GOP party politics; it is dominated by those who ignore reality and focus on a world that does not exist -- one where there is no racism and no inequality. Republicans cannot address the real problems facing the average Americans because by and large, they are not average Americans.
And that is why when it comes to the killing of Trayvon Martin, Obama was right to express how troubled he was, and again, the leading Republicans were completely wrong.
Ben Cohen is the editor of the recently relaunched TheDailyBanter.com