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Obama's mistake on Trayvon Martin case

By Abigail Thernstrom, Special to CNN
July 15, 2013 -- Updated 1902 GMT (0302 HKT)
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.
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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.

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

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