Rhetorical Analysis: Obama’s Trayvon Martin Speech
Trayvon Martin, a 17 years old African America, was murdered, and the jury declared his killer not guilty. A few days later, the president gave a speech the American nation and the whole world that the jury had made the decision and that that is the way the American legal system works. People expected president Obama to give his stand on the jury’s verdict, to state whether he believed that Mr. Zimmerman should be allowed to walk freely after killing an innocent young African American boy that had all his dreams and hopes ahead of him. And with this speech, the president seemed to have evaded the public judgment as he tried to win the American public to his side in a situation that was not entirely up to him and his aspirations in the eyes and hearts of the Americans. Therefore, the main question in this rhetorical analysis is whether or not the president’s real sentiments were expressed in his reaction speech in the case of Trayvon Martin. Also, did the president give his position away?
The Rhetorical Situation
When President Obama gave the speech on the Zimmerman ruling regarding the murder of Trayvon Martin, there were a number of issues raised, some clearly in the speech and others in a less evident manner. By making a public speech shortly after the infamous ruling, it can be stated that the President of the United States was simply playing to the set emotional tunes of the American people, and more specifically the African American people who had just witnessed another person being killed and mourned by the entire community without any hope of justice. The president did not need any exigency for this rhetoric, he knew it was a difficult time for the American people and that during difficult times people need to hear what their leaders think and feel about the situation. They were all eager to know what an African American president, who had probably had firsthand experience of racial discrimination and profiling when he was growing up, would have to say about another incident that has some very pronounced undertones of racial profiling and injustice. The president actually used his position in this situation in his speech, and whether it was to his advantage or not remains quite debatable. Considering that the speech was posted on the White House YouTube channel, it is clear that the intended audience was the people of the whole world. The primary audience, however, were the people of the United States of America, people who in such situations have been referred as the president’s jury, since his speech seems more like a speech given by lawyers when trying to convince a jury to rule in their favor. And while there are many different ways to look at this speech, it usually becomes clear that the president was neither appraising nor condemning the situation, he was simply being diplomatic to a point that he seemed blunt and indecisive. He actually doesn’t answer any of the obvious questions regarding his position as far as the not guilty verdict is concerned.
Here, the main implication of this phrase is with regards to young African American men, repeatedly referred to as boys. These are basically young men who continue to be subjected to numerous cases of racial profiling and unfair treatment, not only by members of law enforcement but also by the general public. In his speech, the president was very vivid in his examples regarding how the African American boys have had to deal with people feeling unsafe around them for years. Being an African American himself, Obama empathized with Martins family. This is evident when he said “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago” (Cohen, 2013, par 1).
The implication within this speech has more to do with law enforcement and the fact that the laws have not always worked for the African American people as they may have for their white counterparts. This presents an undertone of acknowledgment regarding the history of racial injustice within the United States, most of which is not limited to ancient history but is also rather common in the recent past.
In this speech, the American legal system is not mentioned too many times. Even though according to Alvarez (2015, par. 9), “The sluggishness of the local police officers and prosecution in arresting the suspect in the case, in itself was a point that Trayvon would not get justice.” The president opted not to criticize the criminal justice system openly. Instead, the president uses the concept of the American legal system as a critical explanation for the situation at hand, in a limited number of words. He cleverly summarizes his take on the court’s verdict by simply saying that it’s the way the judiciary works in the country.
When considering ‘African American’ as a keyword, it can be appreciated that the clusters would include ‘set of experiences’, ‘history’, ‘why’, ‘pain’, ‘recognize’, violently’, ‘treated differently’, ‘bolster’, ‘reinforce’, and ‘part of the society’. Racial on the other hand has words like ‘inescapable ‘criminal laws’, ‘profiling’, ‘disparities’, tragedies’, ‘legislation’, and ‘bias’. The third cluster involves the legal system and in this case, the associated words include ‘jury has spoken’, ‘young men’, and ‘disproportionately’ (Foss, 2008).
The identified clusters in this speech tell somewhat different stories regarding what the president was really able to communicate. From its face value, the speech was more of political expression in diplomatic diction and more of a ploy to soothe the nation. The speech seems aimed at getting the people on the president’s side in terms of the Zimmerman case, which he actually refers to as the Trayvon Martin case. This is the first alert in the speech that calls one to question the actual subject of the discussion. A further examination of the clusters associated in the speech presents a set of deep-seated issues that the president was thinking about or feeling but did not have the words, or the will to discuss them.
The subject of racism is often a sensitive one in the US. And this is not because the nation is trying to get over its dark past, but rather because the nation is stuck in its dark past. The reality here is that “an African American today may have the democratic rights of their white counterparts but they are still limited by specific contexts like the one that Trayvon Martin found himself in before his death” (Gambino & Laughland, 2015, par. 4). Just because the constitution provides equal rights does not mean that society uses equal weights to gauge the African American community. In the speech, the president seems to believe that the history of the United States with respect to the African American people continues to haunt them, decades after they were granted equal rights. The aspect of pain here justifies the anger and frustration that is currently widespread and continues to get ignited every time something similar happens.
It may be noted that there usually are quite a number of protests and vigils when African American youth are confronted and mistreated by the law enforcers in society. The reason here is that when a country has such a deep history of unjust treatment of a group of its citizens, it is highly unlikely that they would easily forget it. Any slight provocation is likely to trigger some memories and send them back to their dark past, with all the fears and fury. Here, the contention would be that the Trayvon Martin case was not entirely about justice for the legal murder of one young man, but rather the injustice from the American law enforcement that generations of African Americans have had to endure. The president further acknowledges the violence that history has been groomed to associate with the African Americans. He uses the words ‘violence’ and ‘violently’ in association with ‘African American’ to imply a social construction where African Americans are often considered violent and a security risk. Here, it is evident that the president is “merely acknowledging the statistics where young African American men keep finding themselves on the wrong side of the law” (Gambino & Laughland, 2015, par. 12). This is what has created room for them to be treated differently even when they are not on the wrong. And again, this is where the president comes out in defense of the not guilty verdict. He seems to be justifying the jury’s ruling in favor of Mr. Zimmerman despite the popular and commonly well-argued claim that this was a murder.
The president then gets to associate the word racial with ideas like inescapable and bias, showing just how helpless the situation is. He goes on to talk about a possible solution with regards to racial profiling as applied in the state of Illinois, but the undertones in his speech do not bring positive energy into the mentioned prospects. The implication here is that American history continues to haunt the present to a point that racism is just as American as McDonalds or Wal-Mart.
The legal system is not spared from these gloomy associations either. According to the cluster, the legal system is just as unbalanced and biased when it comes to matters of racism (Foss, 2008). With its association with the word ‘disproportionately’, it becomes obvious that the legal system is not likely to defend the African American citizens from cases of injustice that are rooted in racist perceptions like the one that led to Trayvon Martin’s justified murder.
The president then ends his speech with some hope for the African American community, no matter how faint. He speaks of intending to bolster, reinforcing and making the young black men feel like they are a part of the society. To a mourning community that is hurting over the loss of yet another innocent person and a son, these remarks really have no value. The fact that he is in support of the ruling, no matter how much he doesn’t say so, is considered an insult in many ways. The president may have tried to brush off the issue at hand by focusing on the woes of the African American community but he still ends up giving away his stand in the end. To him, Trayvon Martin’s death was just another matter that shows how wrong the American system is and that basically it is not anyone’s fault >(Blackmon & Thomas, 2015). The jury cannot be blamed, because they are just doing what they think is right. The murderer cannot be blamed either, because the societal conditions made him think of young black men as a threat to security. Even Trayvon Martin is, in this case, exonerated since his only crime is being born in a country with a rich history of persecution based on the color of one’s skin. And in the end, there is absolutely no justice for the young man and his family except that they were praised for how they were dealing with the situation.
A rhetoric examination of the president’s reaction to the verdict of the Trayvon Martin case presents a point in American history where the president has to contend with the immense failures of the American society as far as curbing racism is concerned. This analysis also reveals the depth at which racial profiling and discrimination is deeply entrenched in the criminal justice system in the U.S. This fact presents itself vividly when the president with all his leverage and power fails to candidly criticize the ruling that saw the person who murdered Trayvon acquitted. One interesting fact that emanates from this analysis is that the manner in which a message is communicated has a direct correlation to the manner in which the audience will react. Careful use of words in Obama’s reaction speech calmed the deeply aggrieved African American community and also helped the president respect the autonomy of judicial rulings.