President Obama’s surprise remarks Friday on the Trayvon Martin–George Zimmerman case, in which Obama declared, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” came after public prodding by some of his supporters, sometimes on op-ed pages.
Mark Landler and Michael D. Shear reported Friday for the New York Times that the speech followed “anguished soul-searching by Mr. Obama” and that “Aides say the president closely monitored the public reaction and talked repeatedly about the case with friends and family.”
They also wrote, “The White House’s original plan — for Mr. Obama to address the verdict in brief interviews on Tuesday with four Spanish-language television networks — was foiled when none of them asked about it.” The story also identified the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who is also an MSNBC host, as among those urging the president to speak out.
In the Washington Post on Tuesday, Janet Langhart Cohen, the actress and wife of former Defense Secretary William Cohen, wrote, “We have waited and watched the president address issues of importance to women, gays and lesbians, Latinos and the security of our allies. . . . But just as one does not have to be black to speak to the issues of race, black people should not have to wait for white leaders to be elected before they feel free to vigorously petition their government to redress their legitimate grievances.
“I say this with respect: To use Dr. [Martin Luther] King’s phrase, there is a fierce urgency of now for the president to talk boldly and truthfully about race and racism and why it still matters in the United States. I hope that President Obama will speak not just to black people or just to white people but to the good people in America. We can never have racial reconciliation without discussing the truth.
“The sound of silence is a song that we can no longer sing.”
The same day’s editions of the Post carried a column by Courtland Milloy saying, “America, and Obama, need to hear, loudly and clearly, that African Americans are angry and alarmed and will not accept any diminution of the freedoms and protections we’ve fought so hard to achieve. . . .”
And on the front page was an analysis by White House correspondent Scott Wilson recounting the tightrope Obama has walked in dealing with race. “Obama’s response to the Zimmerman verdict has satisfied some, but many African Americans would like to hear more from the first African American president,” Wilson wrote.
However, Wilson concluded, “As of now, White House officials say, that is unlikely to happen as the Justice Department considers a federal civil rights case against Zimmerman. . . .”
That all changed Friday in the White House press briefing room. Obama “showed his brother card. He talked about being an African American, [about] being racially profiled as a kid,” Angelo Henderson, Radio One Detroit host, said on NPR’s “All Things Considered. “He connected with so many African American men who have been in those same situations. … He revealed that, yes, he’s part of this community.”
Obama’s remarks were unusually personal as he sought to explain the historical reasons why African Americans felt pain after Zimmerman was found not guilty in the shooting death of the unarmed Florida black teenager. He implicitly rebuked Zimmerman’s defenders, who insisted the case was not about race.
He called for discussions about “How do we bolster African American boys?”
Obama said Americans should question whether “stand your ground” laws “are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than [defuse] potential altercations.”
He added, “And for those who — who resist that idea, that we should think about something like these stand your ground laws, I just ask people to consider, 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.”
CNN reported that the speech resonated with African Americans. “Washington Post columnist Clinton Yates said the speech was historical.
” ‘This is one of the most important, if not the most important thing he’s said while he’s been in office,’ said Yates.
” ‘To take the context of race and explain it as the reality that exists for many people of color in America is something a lot of people simply don’t want to believe is true. But when the president stands in that room and makes that statement, it is a very forceful comment about the state of affairs so far today,’ said Yates.”
Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, CNN commentator and vice chair of voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee, told John Harwood of the New York Times last month that the White House was stuck “in this postracial box” and was determined, in Harwood’s words, “to present Obama as a leader who does not reflexively promote the concerns of fellow African-Americans over others.”
Unboxed, Obama made it clear Friday that he does not believe the United States is “postracial.”
Brazile tweeted this response to her followers, “President Obama statement was strong, powerful & truthful. Let’s respect what #POTUS said without any notes. He speaks for the voiceless.”
Andrew Rosenthal, editorial page editor of the New York Times, tweeted, “It’s an amazing moment for the country to have a president who can talk about race like this. Sad that he has to do it.”
Amy Alexander, medium.com: Yassuh, Boss. Right Away. (July 15)
BlackAmericaWeb.com: Trayvon Martin’s Friend, Rachel Jeantel, Offered Full Ride Scholarship from Tom Joyner (July 16)
Charles Blow, CNN: REACTION To Obama On Trayvon Martin Case Zimm (video)
Philip Bump, the Atlantic: Fox Tried Seven Times to Get the Brother of Zimmerman to Criticize Obama (It Didn’t Work)
Michael Calderone, Huffington Post: Washington Post Defends Richard Cohen Column Justifying Trayvon Martin Profiling (July 16)
Gregory Clay, McClatchy-Tribune News Service: Bottom line: the George Zimmerman jury got it right (July 16)
Ta-Nehisi Coates, New York Times: Raising the Wrong Profile
Richard Cohen, Washington Post: Racism vs. reality (July 15)
Charlene Cooper, Essence: Rachel Jeantel Offered Full College Scholarship (July 16)
Mary C. Curtis, Washington Post: Would Obama consider Ray Kelly for Homeland Security? (July 18)
Eric Deggans, Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times: Lessons from George Zimmerman verdict: Unanswered question becomes Rorschach test on race and media in America (July 18)
David J. Dent blog: George Zimmerman, OJ Simpson, Obama’s Racial Optimism, and Bush Obama America
Kevin Eck, TVSpy: KNXV Called Racist For Where They Got Zimmerman Trial Reaction (July 18)
Essence magazine: Scared for Our Boys? Join Our #HeIsNotASuspect Campaign Now (July 16)
Garance Franke-Ruta, the Atlantic: The Time Obama Was Mistaken for a Waiter at a Tina Brown Book Party
Alex Halperin, Salon: Nastiest conservative responses to Obama’s Trayvon speech
Melissa Harris-Perry, MSNBC: ‘Everything will be ok. I love you.’ Parenting after Trayvon (July 15)
Shani O. Hilton, BuzzFeed: The Secret Power Of Black Twitter (July 16)
Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: ‘Fruitvale Station’ offers light instead of heat days after George Zimmerman verdict
Rick Horowitz, Huffington Post: “Stand Your Ground”? Whose Ground? (video)
Mark Jurkowitz and Nancy Vogt, Pew Research Center: On Twitter: Anger greets the Zimmerman verdict (July 17)
Scott Keyes, thinkprogress.org: Top 12 Conservative Freakouts After Obama’s Race Speech
Joe Madison, SiriusXM: Madison Calls for Throwback to “Throwback Sunday” over Richard Cohen WashPo Piece (audio) (July 17)
Tamika D. Mallory, Essence: Trayvon Tragedy: You’re Mad… So Now What? (July 16)
Barbara Reynolds, Washington Post: Zimmerman Trial: What should we tell our sons, now? (July 14)
Kevin Spak, Newser: Richard Cohen: Being Afraid of Black People Isn’t Racist (July 16)
Joe Strupp, Media Matters for America: Black Journalists and Commentators Rip Limbaugh’s “Nigga” Claims (July 17)
Jake Tapper with Kevin Madden, Anita Dunn and Clinton Yates, “The Lead With Jake Tapper,” CNN: Analysis: Will Obama’s speech on race ‘lower temperatures’?
Ahmir Questlove Thompson, New York: Questlove: Trayvon Martin and I Ain’t Shit (July 16)
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang blog: Justice for Trayvon, Justice for all our children (July 15)
Roger Witherspoon blog: Daddy, Me, Trayvon, and “The Talk” (July 17)
Among President Obama’s biggest critics are Cornel West, the author and academic now at Union Theological Seminary, and Tavis Smiley, the activist and broadcaster. The two are friends and jointly appear on the public radio show “Smiley & West.”
According to theGrio.com, a tweeting Smiley was quick to dismiss the president’s Friday speech.
“The backlash to Smiley’s broadside was just as swift, with numerous Twitter users calling him out for being ‘pathetic,’ ” the Grio reported.
” ‘I’m sending you the transcript as you clearly missed the speech, brother,’ wrote MSNBC contributor Angel Rye.
“Others told Smiley it’s ‘time to move on’ and mocked him for having his ‘panties in a bunch’ because the president ‘hasn’t kissed the ring.’ “
Meanwhile, a new book on the 2012 presidential campaign by Jonathan Alter, a columnist for Bloomberg View and an analyst and contributing correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC, recounts Obama’s now-famous confrontation with West at a National Urban League event in 2010.
“Among the dissenters was Professor Cornel West, who had campaigned for Obama in 2008 but grew upset when Obama stopped returning his phone calls,” Alter writes in “The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies.” “After the election, West learned that Obama’s top economic adviser would be Larry Summers, who as president of Harvard had pushed West out of the university in 2002 in a dispute over whether a professor should record hip-hop songs. West gave speeches around the country saying that Obama wasn’t a true progressive and that he couldn’t ‘in good conscience’ tell people to vote for him, though he admitted that his failure to secure special inauguration tickets for his mother and brother contributed to his hard feelings.
“In July 2010 the president spotted West in the front row of the audience for his speech to the National Urban League. Afterward he came down to West’s seat and grew angry. ‘I’m not progressive? What kind of shit is this?’ the president hissed, his face contorted. West said later that a brassy African American woman standing behind him told the president to his face, ‘How dare you speak to Dr. West like that!’ and argued after Obama left that the obscenity would have justified removal by the Secret Service had it come from anyone else.
“In the months following the confrontation West stepped up his attacks, calling Obama a ‘black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.’ He added, ‘I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men. It’s understandable. As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he’s always had to fear being a white man with black skin.’ “