After Barack Obama's election as the nation's first black president, there was hope that perhaps Americans would move beyond the old shibboleths and divisions about race. But the Trayvon Martin case shows once again how far the nation has to go, and illustrates how raw the race issue remains.
The last 24 hours have featured a cross-country war of words over Martin's death. There has been a rising number of protests in cities from New York and Washington to Los Angeles and Sanford, Florida, where the shooting of the unarmed black teenager occurred a month ago. His death and the murky circumstances surrounding it, including the fact that the shooter has not been arrested, have caused an outpouring of debate in mainstream and social media.
And the incident has provoked a new round of harsh words between Obama supporters and Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.
On Friday, President Obama referred in personal terms to Martin's death by saying, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," and promised a thorough investigation.
This prompted former House Speaker Gingrich to call Obama's comments "disgraceful." Gingrich told Sean Hannity on Fox News, "What the president said, in a sense, is disgraceful...Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be OK, because it didn't look like him? Trying to turn it into a racial issue is fundamentally wrong."
On Sunday, White House senior adviser David Plouffe said Gingrich had gone beyond the pale. "Those comments are reprehensible," Plouffe said on ABC's "This Week." "Speaker Gingrich is clearly in the last throes of his political career. You can make a decision whether to go out with some shred of dignity or say these irresponsible, reckless things, and he has already chosen the latter path, and that is unfortunate for the country."
Plouffe also went on CNN and broadened his attack to include former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum after Santorum said Obama was using "these types of horrible and tragic individual cases to try to drive a wedge in America." Plouffe said said that the "two comments [of Gingrich and Santorum] are really irresponsible. I would consider them reprehensible." He said, "I think those comments were really hard to stomach, really, and I guess trying to appeal to people's worst instincts." Plouffe also said, "You know, this Republican primary at some points has been more of a circus and a clown show."