Obama Had to Say Something about Trayvon Martin, and Americans Needed to Hear It

Jill Lawrence

President Obama’s somber remarks on race and the George Zimmerman verdict were almost painfully personal, delivered from the heart and from his own experiences as a black man in a society that often regards black men and black teens warily, even fearfully.

Although his apparently unscripted comments in the White House press briefing room drew scorn and even accusations of racism from some on the right, he was right to try to lay out a constructive, nonpolitical path forward. It would have been a missed opportunity—a huge missed opportunity—if America had not heard firsthand from its first black president at a moment like this.

Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Obama said, an arresting start to 19 minutes of reflections unique in the nation’s history.

“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.”

Obama’s measured, thoughtful tone was reassuring even as he tried to convey to people who aren’t black what it is like to be black. It is “inescapable,” he said, that black people would view the verdict through the lens of a history that includes “racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws” and everyday occurrences that simply don’t happen to white people. He suggested that if Martin, 17 and unarmed, had been white, the incident might not have happened.

“Folks understand the challenges that exist for African-American boys. But they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there’s no context for it and that context is being denied. And that all contributes, I think, to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different,” Obama said.

He also asked people to consider this difficult question in the context of reviewing “Stand Your Ground” laws: “If Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.”

Inevitably, conservatives charged that Obama was stirring up controversy needlessly, and showing bias against whites. “Remarkable that the president of the United States continues to fan the flames on George Zimmerman. #StopTalkingSir," tweeted Republican strategist Brian Walsh.

“Can this president and his ilk get over race? You're dividing and destroying this country with your race-baiting—making Karl Marx proud,” tweeted Gabriella Hoffman, a regional field coordinator for the Leadership Institute who describes herself as “dangerously conservative.”

Yet for the black community, Obama’s remarks were more than four years overdue. After the Zimmerman verdict, they pleaded with him to say something commensurate to their pain over this case—to speak not just about race but about racism.

In one high-profile example, Janet Langhart Cohen—the black playwright and wife of former Defense Secretary Bill Cohen—wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that blacks were tired of cutting Obama slack while he took up the causes of others, were done waiting for him to be “liberated from the racial harness that politics forced him to wear.” She implored him to talk about the case in a way that touched on “the heartbreak, despair, and quiet rage that so many of us feel at this moment.”

Obama managed to do that without sounding heartbroken, despairing, or enraged himself. He proposed more training for state and local authorities to reduce racial profiling and build trust, and a review of state and local laws to see if they encourage rather than discourage confrontations and tragedies like the one that ended with Zimmerman killing Martin. He said he hoped to use his office to help business leaders, local officials, clergy, celebrities, and athletes come up with ways to show African-American boys that “their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them.”

Finally, Obama suggested soul-searching, urging people to ask themselves, “Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?”

It was more than five years ago, in March 2008, that Obama delivered his pivotal and much-celebrated campaign address on race. It had a title, A More Perfect Union—the same phrase he used at the end of his remarks Friday. He gave that speech in a symbolic setting, the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. At stake was the Democratic presidential nomination. Ten days after he delivered it, as it began its long afterlife on YouTube, the Pew Research Center found that an astonishing 85 percent of Americans had heard at least a little about the speech and 54 percent had heard a lot.

Americans listen to Obama on race. Yes, he has roiled the waters and reopened a raw conversation. But if not now, when? And if not him, who?