Obama Finally Finds His Voice on Race

The president confronts the issue of racial profiling in his latest remarks on the Zimmerman verdict. 

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

(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 “race 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.