A Moment To Lead, Not Add Fuel to the Racial Fire

The president needs to encourage a national dialogue to reduce the racial divide that exists in America.

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The not guilty verdict in the Zimmerman trial has led to visceral outrage from individuals across the country, especially those in the African-American community. The verdict has sparked protests, riots and violence across the country. This week a group of African-American youth senselessly beat a Hispanic man in Baltimore, Maryland, where they allegedly yelled, "this is for Trayvon."

Both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman made some horrific decisions the night of the incident that led to the tragic death of one and a marred life forever for the other. The prosecution and defense sparred, the jury deliberated and now the nation needs to find a way to make sense of it all.

This is a moment for President Obama and his administration to lead the nation in fostering civility and encouraging respect among all Americans, rather than pointing fingers and blaming the U.S. judicial system. It is a moment to match all his rhetoric and speeches on repairing the breach. Can he live up to it?

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Following the shooting of several victims, including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, in Arizona in 2011, the president delivered a powerful speech where he stated, "Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let's use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together."

These words resonate with our nation at a time when the African-American community feels hopeless and leaderless, our nation is deeply polarized and in need of a national conversation where different opinions are respected and heard. The president serves the American people – white, black, Hispanic, Asian. I am not so sure that the president would have inserted his emotional plea in the Zimmerman case if the teenager had been white or Hispanic. However, he clearly stated his views that "Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago" or "if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon."

[VOTE: Was President Obama Right to Speak Out About Trayvon Martin?]

The president and his administration's comments about the case could add fuel to a potentially dangerous racial fire. Americans need to question whether U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to further investigate the Zimmerman case is based on political motives to appease the African-American community.

Like the Obama administration, liberal media commentators and black activists have made emotionally charged comments following the verdict. On the Fox News O'Reilly Factor, Tavis Smiley spoke about the Zimmerman verdict and stated that there is a "contempt" towards black men. This frustration from many black leaders shows that a disconnect exists  between whites and blacks. How can we become more understanding and empathic and how can the African-American community embrace our help? Many Americans stand by and may not understand what is happening within the African-American community, especially in the inner cities. Dialogue is key, and someone needs to lead that discussion.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the Trayvon Martin tragedy.]

My 73-year-old mother-in-law who is a conservative former city council white woman from Wichita, Kansas shared her story about her friendship with Antoine Sherfield, a young former gang member who is African-American. They spent hours talking politics and the plight of young black men. He spoke about how his mother abandoned him, he never met his father and a teacher raised him. Despite being a former gang member, he is now a successful and inspirational leader, an author and a mentor for troubled youth in Fort Worth, Texas. My mother-in-law grew up in an affluent neighborhood in upstate New York – a very different life than Antoine's, but their willingness to learn and help each other grow is the type of relationship that need to be fostered across ethnic and racial lines.

President Obama can learn from my mother-in-law and Antoine. Despite their racial and generational differences, they found common ground that has led to a special friendship. The president needs to encourage a national dialogue where we can respectfully discuss the issues impacting the African-American community and also reduce the racial divide that exists in America.

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