Opposing views before Obama’s remarks on race, applause all around after

July 20, 2013

President Obama pauses as he speaks to reporters in the Brady Press Briefing room of the White House in Washington on Friday. (AP)

In the days leading up to President Obama’s poignant, personal comments about race against the backdrop of the killing of Trayvon Martin, Janet Langhart Cohen penned an appeal to the president that ran in The Washington Post’s opinion pages urging him to address  “the quiet rage that so many of us feel at the moment.”

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson advised Obama to do just the opposite and steer clear of the volatile issue of race, arguing that Obama is “not the best person to lead the discussion … he might be the worst.”

Langhart Cohen, in an interview late Friday, said she was pleasantly surprised when the news broke that Obama had decided to try to explain “a set of experiences” that caused many African Americans to be angry or dejected after a Sanford, Fla., jury found George Zimmerman not guilty in the shooting death of the unarmed teenager.

“I was so pleased — and so stunned, because there was no announcement,” she said, referring to the president’s sudden appearance in the White House briefing room to speak to reporters, who also were surprised that he was taking on the issue. “I thought the president was powerful. I thought he was eloquent and I applaud his courage for to step forward in this very explosive situation.”

Langhart Cohen, in her op-ed piece, echoed the sentiments of other African Americans, who say Obama has been reluctant to show empathy and embrace issues important to  them. Many were unhappy with what they thought was a tepid response from the president the day after the verdict, in which he said the “jury has spoken” and urged “quiet reflection.”

Robinson, noting that past instances in which Obama has tried to broach the subject of race had not gone over well, provoking angry accusations that he injected race into matters where it didn’t belong. “[T]he unfortunate fact is that if his aim is to promote dialogue about race, speaking his mind is demonstrably counterproductive,” Robinson wrote.

The incident at the center of the current debate began on a rainy February evening in 2012. On one side are those who believe that Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer in his gated community, profiled Martin, a 17-year-old black teenager wearing a hoodie, who was walking back to the home of his father’s girlfriend after a trip to the store to buy a bag of candy and a soft drink. On the other side are those who say Zimmerman was justified in pursuing, confronting and ultimately shooting Martin in self defense after the two got into an altercation.

Langhart Cohen, an author who has written extensively about the country’s historical struggle with race, doesn’t know if her arguments pricked the president’s conscience. Perhaps, she said, he was persuaded by “the grace and grief of Trayvon Martin’s parents — who could not be touched by that?”

The day before Obama spoke, Martin’s parents Sabrina Fulton and Tracy Martin spoke publicly for the first time since the verdict. During an interview on CNN, Fulton said she the jurors had failed to see her son “as a typical teenager … as a human being.” In a statement after the president’s comments on Friday, Fulton and Martin alluded to the words that have drawn the most attention from Obama’s remarks: “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” Martin’s parents said in their statement: “President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him. This is a beautiful tribute to our boy.”

Langhart doesn’t doubt that Obama will be criticized for venturing into the rugged terrain of race, but says it will likely be “from the same old people” and that “with something as serious as this on the line, we can’t let them determine if we’re going to act on behalf of our people.” She hopes that by sharing his personal experiences with discrimination and calling on Americans to “do some soul searching” about their own attitudes, Obama “elevated the conversation” and will make people less afraid to talk about race.

Robinson, via e-mail Saturday, tipped his hat to Obama and to Langhart Cohen. “I thought it was a great speech. And I hope Janet’s right and I’m wrong. By making it so personal and getting the tone so right, President Obama may have cut through the noise and gotten an important message across.”

He aded: “I guess I join the long line of people who’ve told him he couldn’t do something — and then watched as he did it.”

Vanessa Williams is a deputy national editor at The Post and edits the She The People blog. She has covered and edited local and national politics for the paper. Contact her at Vanessa.Williams@washpost.com.
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