President Obama (Larry Downing/Reuters)
President Obama (Larry Downing/Reuters)

President Obama’s unannounced entry into the White House Briefing Room took reporters by surprise. But what he had to say took the nation by surprise. In his first public remarks since his written statement after George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the killing of Trayvon Martin, Obama gave voice to the frustration and fear that has gripped the African American community. And he did it in the most personal terms we have seen to date.

What is so significant is that the president spoke up for Trayvon. After a trial that seemed to put Trayvon on trial for his own death and a verdict that freed people to smear all young black men for the actions of a few, Obama’s nearly 20-minute oration restored Trayvon’s dignity.

The unarmed 17-year-old was doing nothing wrong or illegal when he piqued Zimmerman’s suspicions in the early evening of Feb. 26, 2012.  The president made the circumstances surrounding his death the focus of his remarks. And he expressed unflinching sympathy for Trayvon’s parents and the Martin family.

“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son,” Obama said. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” With that, the first black president of the United States started to bring a tragedy that happened hundreds of miles away and to a family not his own to his very own doorstep. In his words and body language, you could tell Obama felt compelled to say something about race and its impact on America in general and on African Americans in particular.

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 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.  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.  That happens often.

And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.  And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.  The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.  And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.

The president also didn’t shy away from black-on-black crime and the other ills stalking black males. Despite right-wing cranks flooding the Internet with sudden concern about these issues, Obama made it clear that African Americans are not unaware of those problems. But he also explained that those who would use those issues to justify disparate treatment of black men and boys only add to the collective pain of African Americans.

I was in the briefing room when the president said these words, and I will admit to a welling of the eyes. One of the reasons President Bill Clinton is so popular among blacks is because he spoke to them and about them in ways that were knowing. To have a president who looks like me and has lived the same experience I have and to say so before the nation was as overwhelming as it was historic.

But Obama wasn’t just talking to me or fellow African Americans. He was talking to all Americans.

I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching.  There has been talk about, ‘Should we convene a conversation on race?’  I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations.  They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.  On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?  Am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character?  That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.

It is in those churches and workplaces where there might be the reservoirs of trust required to have the difficult conversations needed to answer Obama’s challenging questions. The president has done his part to restart the conversation. Now will we carry it forward?

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Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.