22 Jul 2013
- Written by Keli Goff/The Root
Six days after a jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, President Obama gave his first public remarks on the matter. He also gave his most in-depth remarks on race since his famed ""ace speech," "A More Perfect Union," in 2008.
The president surprised reporters by appearing before them unannounced. Unprompted, he began by reiterating his sympathy for the parents of Trayvon Martin, before doing something extraordinary. The president acknowledged his own experiences with racial profiling and how that experience and similar ones that disproportionately affect black Americans have shaped our community's reaction to the Zimmerman verdict. He said in part:
"You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there's a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it's important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that – that doesn't go away.
"There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me."
The president went on to talk about some of the other dehumanizing experiences that African Americans, particularly African-American men, encounter on a regular basis, such as having women hold their purses tighter in elevators.
The candor with which the president spoke was extraordinary. It was the first time he tackled the issue of race and discrimination in such a detailed way since taking office. While his speech on race at the height of the Jeremiah Wright controversy during the 2008 election was well-received, his later attempts at broaching the subject created political landmines that his advisers seemed uncertain how to navigate. His comments relating to the controversy that ultimately led to the White House "beer summit" resulted in a decline in his approval ratings, and his brief initial comments on Trayvon Martin – that if he had a son, he'd look like Trayvon – provoked criticism. As a result his seemingly risk-averse advisers steered clear of race at all costs, rarely broaching the subject.
But the death of Trayvon Martin, which drew comparisons to previous civil rights martyrs such as Emmett Till, provoked a particular measure of passion, and the president's silence on the racial dynamics of the case drew criticism from many, including me.
As I said in multiple television interviews, I, and other critics of his initial response, recognize that President Obama was not elected to be the president of black America. But black Americans are just as American as everybody else, and while it's arguable that we shouldn't expect more from the president because he is black, we should also not expect less. Although he has aggressively waded into controversial issues affecting other minority groups, from same-sex marriage to immigration reform, he consistently shied away from doing so when it came to issues that disproportionately affect black Americans, such as racial profiling.
What made his unwillingness to address racial profiling even more galling is that this president is the first in our nation's history likely to have firsthand experience with the issue, something he acknowledged today.
In addition to referencing his own experience with being profiled, he talked about his previous legislative efforts to address the issue on a local level. He passed racial-profiling legislation as a state senator.
But it is very possible that the president's remarks today will prove far more impactful than a piece of legislation. The reason?
The most powerful black man in the world validated the fear that has haunted most black Americans in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict – a fear that many who are not black dismissed as paranoia bordering on hysteria. It is the fear that no matter what school you go to, what neighborhood you live in, what job you have, how you dress and even if you have no criminal record, if you are black in America you may be feared and targeted, even in the age of the first black president. And if you are a young black man – or the mother, sister, father or brother of one – you are not crazy for feeling this fear and for giving voice to it, because it is a fear that the Ivy league-educated, half-white president of the United States has known.
And thanks to his courage in giving voice to this fear today, more non-black Americans can put a face to this fear that they can identify with, and hopefully because of that they will think twice before they think the worst when crossing paths with a young, black teenager armed with a pack of Skittles, and they're armed with a gun.
(Keli Goff is The Root's special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.)