Only the president and perhaps the first lady know the full story of how he came to do and say what he did Friday. He told advisers Thursday that he wanted to speak out but that he did not want to give a formal speech, as he had in 2008. He chose a setting that was understated in the extreme — a surprise appearance before unsuspecting reporters on a Friday afternoon.
Obama faced a personal political crisis when he spoke about Wright. That was not the case Friday. But his comments were far more personal than those he made in 2008. Equally important, his words were not an effort to balance the scales or to give equal weight to the views of those who believe the jury was correct to declare Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter and those outraged by the verdict.
He barely mentioned George Zimmerman. He said he would let legal analysts and talking heads deal with the particulars of the case. Instead, his comments were all about Trayvon Martin and the black experience in America. “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,” he said.
This is, after all, a president who wrote a book — “Dreams From My Father,” about his search for racial identity as the child of a white mother and an absent black African father. He has thought long and hard about the complexities of race in America, and it was clear from what he said Friday that this is something he and his wife talk about privately.
He spoke not just as an African American but also as an African American male — “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago” — in a country where young African American males regularly die from gunshots or are, as he noted had happened to him, subject to being followed while shopping in a department store, no matter how innocently, or who can hear the locks on car doors click when they walk along a street.
He talked about an African American community that has seen “racial disparities” in the application of criminal laws. “Now this isn’t to say that the African American community is naive about the fact that African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence,” he said. “It’s not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.”
The president is rightly skeptical of calling for a national conversation on race, knowing that however much progress has been made over the past half-century, racial divisions and discrimination do and will persist. What he did was something no other American president could have done — giving voice, in calm and measured terms, to what it means still to be black in America.