Obama: 'Trayvon Could Have Been Me'

He put African-American reactions to the verdict in the context of the country's painful racial history and urged Americans to "wring out" bias. 

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President Obama (Getty Images)

(The Root) -- President Obama delivered comments to reporters in the White House briefing room today on George Zimmerman's acquittal in unarmed African-American teen Trayvon Martin's death. His remarks will no doubt stand out among the significant moments in the tenure of America's first black president. 

In commentary that focused more heavily on interpreting the reactions of the African-American community to the verdict than it did on the facts that led to the unarmed teen's death itself (he scarcely mentioned Zimmerman), Obama used his personal experiences as well as references to the country's racist history and unfair treatment of black men to explain why the verdict elicited such a strong reaction -- or, as he put it, "why there's a lot of pain around what happened here."

Some of it was Race and Racism 101, sure. But it was poignant to hear, coming from behind that particular podium.

"The African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away," he said, giving examples of racial profiling and fear that he himself said he'd experienced.

The line that will be remembered from the speech: "Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago." Not just "my son," as he said shortly after the 17-year-old's death and before Zimmerman's arrest, but "me."

Seemingly heading off predictable distracting responses by making clear to his audience that the black community is well aware that black men are both perpetrators as well as victims of violence, he went on to issue a list of recommendations to address the larger social issues exposed by reactions to the case.

First among them was that the Department of Justice work with state and local governments to "reduce the trust in the system that currently exists." He also proposed an examination of state and local laws, including "Stand your ground," "to see if they're designed in such a way that may encourage the kinds of altercations and the tragedy we saw in the Florida case."

In less-specific suggestions, Obama said that the country should contemplate how to "bolster and reinforce these African-American boys" and "help African-American men feel that they're a full part of this society and that they've got pathways and avenues to succeed." (Some will argue correctly here that neither a perception of pathways to success, nor any other attitude on the part of the black community, would have saved Trayvon from being profiled and followed by Zimmerman on the night that he lost his life; nor would those things have led to Zimmerman's conviction.)

He closed by encouraging "some soul-searching" that goes deeper than the normal "conversation on race," suggesting that Americans ask themselves, "Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, not on the color of their skin, but the content of their character?"

While the remarks as a whole were revealing, the angle historic and all the other suggestions worthy of support and consideration, here's hoping that Americans were paying attention to that last bit: the "wringing out" of bias that could have prevented this entire tragedy in the first place.

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