We need to talk. (Ann Heisenfeldt/Associated Press)

On Friday, President Obama delivered some powerful remarks about the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial and the Trayvon Martin case, in which he noted:

You know, 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.

The whole speech is worth a watch, and a read, but this especially sticks out.

And, of course, how did people respond? With stilted, politicized shouting that indicated that we were locked into the positions we already have.

Former representative Joe Walsh tweeted that “President Obama is making this all about race. All. About. Race.” Breitbart.com’s Ben Shapiro called the whole thing a “ginned up racial melee.” On Fox News, Greg Jarrett posed rhetorical-ish questions about whether the president was running the risk of provoking “even more demonstrations, and let’s hope not, but potential violence.”

National conversations, organized by politicians, seldom work. 

One of the least productive things you can say about any serious question is: “We need to have a national discussion about this.”

As a phrase, “We need to talk” seldom leads anywhere good. When we, as a nation, talk, the conversation that ensues is too often that the people whose job it is to say the wildest, most unhinged things possible to attract viewers say those wild and unhinged things, attract viewers, and no one’s mind changes. The echo chamber echoes. Foam flecks fly. Then we return to our corners. Much of the opinionating, following the trial verdict, seems like a contest of Who Can Shove His Foot Into His Mouth The Fastest? And that’s not what should come out of this.

How do you have a productive conversation about something as difficult as this? Where do you have it? With whom? Do you have it in public, in an organized manner, with raising of hands and reading of essays? Do you have a day when you gather everyone as a community to talk about it, the way it sometimes happens on college campuses after Something Happens that merits discussion?

Do you have it with your friends? Your real Friends or your Facebook friends?

One of the strange facts of modern life is how many of our private conversations happen in the quasi-public sphere of the Internet, where one person’s Facebook post can become one of the most publicized responses to the Zimmerman verdict, and where there is always That One Guy Who Is Always About To Unfriend You Who Writes In All Caps Screeds, ruining any polite discussion you have going on. Private conversations about these things stand a chance of going forward, but when you have to have them with people watching, it becomes harder to listen. As we move from private talks to public and quasi-public discussion, where you’re cadging for Likes and Retweets, it becomes a lot harder to be civil and turns into more Let’s All Shout So That Only People Who Agree Will Focus On What We Have To Say.

But in this regard, the president’s conclusion was also striking:

On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s a 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.

 

And let me just leave you with — with a final thought, that as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn’t mean that we’re in a postracial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are. They’re better than we were on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.

And so, you know, we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues, and those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions. But we should also have confidence that kids these days I think have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did, and that along this long, difficult journey, you know, we’re becoming a more perfect union — not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.

 

All right? Thank you, guys.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day. She is the author of "A Field Guide to Awkward Silences".