For 18 minutes Friday, Barack Obama got personally, politically racial. He used himself as a stand-in for the churn, tumult and profound sadness that many in the African American community feel in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.
From behind the lectern in the White House press briefing room, the president laid out his views in apparently unscripted remarks that served as a kind of primer on the black male psyche.
“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,” Obama said. “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.”
His tone was flat, but his words conveyed the pain of a shared narrative. And in a case driven by optics — man and boy, hoodies you see and weapons you don’t — the sight of a black man speaking to the interior lives of black men, while standing in front of the White House seal as his nation’s standard bearer, made for another powerful visual.
The constant suspicion that dogs black men, that many African Americans believe dogged Martin on the night he was shot, was for a moment fully given voice by Obama.
“I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?” the president questioned Socratically. “And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?”
For some, his remarks could have been titled: On being black and male in 21st-century America.
“He used the bully pulpit of the presidency to humanize black men,” said William Jelani Cobb, director of the Institute for African American Studies at the University of Connecticut. Cobb, who has written extensively on the Trayvon Martin case, also referenced the attorney general’s NAACP speech Tuesday: “It’s not just the president. When Eric Holder spoke to the NAACP earlier this week, he spoke about profiling and ‘stand your ground’ in very personal terms, so it was important because implicit in his statement is that the young person who you suspect is a criminal could be someone of his stature.”
For Cobb and others, it was a moment to exhale. Obama was elected and reelected by a multiracial coalition that skewed young, and he built his brand as a bridge builder. Though he has sometimes spoken on racial issues, he has been careful to maintain a distance on the most polarizing and divisive debates around race. But ahead of a weekend of rallies organized by Al Sharpton, an Obama ally, the president’s weigh-in increases the attention to calls for change.
“I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see if . . . they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than defuse potential altercations,” Obama said.
The former constitutional law professor was mostly uninterested in the procedures that led to the Zimmerman verdict. “The judge was professional,” he said, “the jury properly instructed.” He spoke instead to issues of social justice, marrying history and lived experience with the complexities of the moment.
Martin’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, said they were deeply touched by the president’s remarks. “We know our family has become a conduit for people to talk about race in America,” they said in a statement issued shortly after the president’s remarks. “What touches people is that our son, Trayvon Benjamin Martin, could have been their son. President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him. This is a beautiful tribute to our boy.”
It’s one of the value-adds of having a black president, Cobb said. Having “someone who understands this narrative and, even more importantly, someone who can explain it to the rest of the country.”