President Obama’s remarkably personal speech on Trayvon Martin and race in America

July 19, 2013

Going all the way back to the days when he was just an Illinois state senator, Barack Obama has largely eschewed talking publicly about his life as a black man in American society. Until today.

"Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago," President Obama said in remarks in the White House briefing room aimed at addressing the case of a young black man shot under controversial circumstances in Sanford, Florida.

He continued in very personal terms, adding that he, like many African American young men, had been followed in department stores, seen people lock their cars when he crossed the streets and watched as women clutched their handbags during an elevator ride with him.

"Those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida," Obama added. "And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear."

To be clear, Obama has spoken about race before -- most notably in a 2008 address designed to calm the furor over his relationship with controversial African American pastor Jeremiah Wright. But, that speech was quite clearly carefully rehearsed and planned in the context of a heated campaign with then Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Obama and his team knew they had to address the issue in order to move beyond it and he did so.

His remarks today were different. George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon Martin, was found not guilty six days ago. President Obama had already released the sort of carefully calibrated statement on race that has been a marker of his handling of the issue as a candidate and as president. In other words, he didn't need to speak more fully on Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman and race in America. He chose to.

And, unlike the Wright speech, Obama seemed to be largely speaking off the cuff. There was no TelePrompTer. He repeatedly looked down, seemingly gathering his thoughts and making sure he said what he meant.  This was no rollout -- as Obama admitted -- of "some five-point plan".  It was the first black president of the United State speaking at a remarkably personal level about his own experiences with race in this country.

The speech then amounted to a very clear break with the way that Obama has dealt with race during virtually the entirety of his political career. During his 2008 campaign -- and especially following his sweeping victory -- Obama was cast as a sort of post-racial figure. And he and his top aides did little to dispute that image.

As a candidate for re-election, Obama shied away from speaking openly about what being the first black president in American history meant to him and to the country, choosing instead to run a campaign more narrowly grounded in his ability to deliver on the kitchen tables that all Americans faced.

The easiest theory to explain the change in  Obama's approach to talking about race then is that he now never has to worry about winning another election and, therefore, can speak his mind more freely.

That is, of course, absolutely true. (Politicians make political decisions. Also, dog bites man.) But, it also seems like more is at work here. To repeat the point we made above, President Obama didn't need to speak out on Trayvon Martin. He chose to -- and do so in personal and expansive terms.

The personalization of his remarks suggest a man who, like many people had hoped when he made history with his election in 2008, wants to leave a lasting legacy on both race relations and the place in society for young black men.

"I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching," Obama said toward the end of his remarks Friday. He clearly had already done some of his own.

More on this story:

Obama: 'Trayvon Martin could have been me'

Read the full transcript of President Obama's remarks

Robert Zimmerman: 'I'm glad he spoke out today'

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Chris Cillizza · July 19, 2013