WASHINGTON — Sometimes it’s good to be proved wrong. Last week, I wrote a column doubting that President Obama could speak powerfully and effectively about the racial issues raised by the Trayvon Martin case. Well, the president did just that.
Obama’s remarks last Friday — a surprise to reporters expecting the usual daily press briefing — were brief and informal. But they amounted to the most important speech about race our first African-American president has delivered in office.
My skepticism about whether Obama should even try to say anything meaningful about Martin’s death and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, had nothing to do with the president’s thoughtfulness or eloquence. I simply feared that whatever he said would be misconstrued — deliberately, by some — in a way that robbed his words of their intended meaning.
But Obama began by talking about himself. It was disarming to hear the most powerful man in the world speak of powerlessness.
“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son,” the president said. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
Obama noted that “the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away,” then narrowed his focus once again to the personal. I quote the next passage at length because, for me, it is the heart of the speech:
“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.”
I’m not sure I know an African-American man who hasn’t had these experiences. What’s new is the idea that the president of the United States knows what it feels like to be eyed warily, to be presumed guilty of malicious intent. That gets your attention.
Obama went on to explain why, in his view, Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal had such tremendous impact for black Americans. African-Americans are not naive, he said; we know that young black men are “disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence.” But it is not making excuses for bad conduct to recognize that the pathology seen in many poor black communities has a historical context. Refusing to acknowledge this context, Obama noted, “adds to the frustration” that many African-Americans feel.
“There is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws,” Obama said. He might have gone further and noted that nowhere will you find citizens more supportive of tough law-and-order policies than in poor, high-crime neighborhoods. But law-abiding citizens want those policies applied fairly — and know that often they are not.
There is “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.” Here the president was guilty of understatement; most of us don’t have “a sense” that things would be different, we’d bet the ranch on it.
The president ended on a hopeful note — gradually, “we’re becoming a more perfect union” — and proposed a way forward.
He offered federal help to local law enforcement agencies in winning the trust of the communities they serve. If the help comes with federal dollars, there will be lots of takers.
He gently suggested that states re-examine stand your ground laws such as Florida’s. “If Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?” Obama asked.
Most important, Obama laid out the challenge of “helping young African-American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed.”
This is the crucial, daunting challenge. Millions of at-risk boys and men need education, mentoring, employment. If this won’t come through “some grand, new federal program,” then how? And when?
Putting last week’s words into action could be Obama’s greatest legacy. I eagerly await his next speech on the unfinished business of race.
Eugene Robinson is an associate editor and columnist for The Washington Post. Email him at email@example.com.