Almost a week after the George Zimmerman verdict was rendered, President Obama finally addressed in-person the verdict. He had released a statement right after the verdict was issued, but today he, in remarks about 15 minutes long, he spoke directly to the people through the press in the most extensive statement he has made on race to date. It was a remarkable speech in which he addressed a wide range of topics including: 1) the wisdom of stand your ground laws, 2) the disparate treatment of African Americans by the criminal justice system and how it affects their perceptions of justice, and 3) the need for more training in preventing racial profiling.
When Trayvon Martin was shot, Obama had said "If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin." In today's surprise speech, Obama made it even more personal. He said, "When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said this could've been my son. Another way of saying that is, Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago." This was a powerful statement that simultanously reinforced that the case and verdict were about race, even as many denied its relevance, and illustrated in the most personal way how race is lived in America by an African American, in this case, the President of the United States.
As the first African American president, Obama has often been stuck in between a rock and a hard spot when it comes to talking about race. He's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. Candidate and then President Obama tried assiduously to find the Goldilocks approach to addressing race, not too much to make moderate whites think he was "the black candidate" with a black agenda that was assumed to be contradictory to white interests and the national interests, but not too little, so that his minority supporters felt abandoned. He has been roundly criticized by his leftist supporters for not talking enough about race and even going out of his way to avoid race talk.
In today's speech, Obama did not run from his race, he owned it. Although a little late in coming, he showed leadership as the nation and especially minority communities struggled to process the verdict. In the most compelling passage of his speech, he said:
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 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. There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me -- at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
The speech struck the right note for hurting minority communities. Obama has been criticized in this speech for not putting forth more concrete recommendations for remedying the underlying problems that led to Zimmerman's acquittal. He can do only so much. It is rare for a President to comment on a specific local case outcome. It was striking to hear a President talk in such personal terms about this case. Could he have done more policy wise? Possibly. But I would argue this is one of the rare instances where the symbolic power of the action may be more influential than policy pronouncements that likely cannot get past a recalcitrant House.