In April of 2012, a poll released by Newsweek/Daily Beast indicated that America was facing a “deepening level of racial division and polarization.” No matter how the data was analyzed, respondents held a firm belief that race relations in the country had grown worse after the election of the first black President. The numbers were stunning:
“Nearly four years after the election of the nation’s first African-American president, majorities of both whites and African Americans surveyed say that race relations in the country have either stayed the same or gotten worse. Sixty-three percent of whites and 58 percent of African-Americans say race relations have either stayed the same or worsened—while only 28 percent of whites and 38 percent of African-Americans say they have gotten better.”
The poll was released in the midst of a case which stands as a rather stark example of the growing racial divide in America—the shooting of Trayvon Martin. This incredibly sensitive story entered the national spotlight low on facts but high on race-based opinions. Martin, an unarmed black teen, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a man quickly labeled by the media as white, or a “White Hispanic.”
Presented with very little concrete evidence, two groups of people came to very differing conclusions: 35% of whites described Martin’s death as racially motivated, while 80% of African-Americans felt the same way (see Figure 1).
Where did the information on this case come from, and was it an accurate portrayal of the facts—or was it meant to divide? And why didn’t Obama use his presidential pulpit to appeal for racial harmony, rather than exploit divisions and differences?
The President’s first public comments on the Martin case invoked personal imagery, stating that “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” The sentiment raised eyebrows among skeptics who viewed it as saying the tragedy bore greater importance because the victim and the President shared similar physical characteristics—namely skin color.
Conservative commentator Michelle Malkin claimed that the President had “poured gas on the fire” with his remarks, while Newt Gingrich described them as “disgraceful” and “appalling.”
And now, the President is calling for calm, in a situation in which he helped fan the flames.