I have been hard on President Obama for his reluctance to speak out about race in America. And, I hasten to add, some of his most ardent supporters have been hard on me for pressing him.
So it is with certain pride, and relief, that I applaud him for speaking out the way he did Friday. Striding unannounced into a White House briefing room, Obama delivered a message from the heart that may well change the way this nation talks about race.
“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son,” Obama remarked. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, 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.”
Acknowledging our collective pain — that’s how Nelson Mandela began the healing process after the collapse of racial apartheid in South Africa. Truth and reconciliation always begin with an embrace of suffering and a summoning of what Obama referred to as “the better angels of our nature,” echoing Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address.
This is never easy, but Obama has boldly held up a spiritual and intellectual light to guide us through the anguished aftermath of the Martin killing. Trayvon, an unarmed 17-year-old youth, had been racially profiled, stalked as a burglary suspect and eventually gunned down by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida. Responding to anger over the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman, Obama stepped forward in a spontaneous, unscripted attempt to turn chaos into community through understanding.
“And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these ‘stand your ground’ laws, I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?” Obama asked. “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? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.”
Of course, the answer is not ambiguous in the least. Trayvon would have been arrested immediately and more than likely held without bond.
Obama also put out a call to action for African Americans in particular — and as any black churchgoer can tell you, such a call always requires a response.
“We need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African American boys,” Obama said. “And this is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about. . . . And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?”
The reference to his wife, Michelle, brings to mind that powerful image of the Obamas as America’s first family — an African American mother and father raising two daughters, Malia and Sasha. Who else but parents can really give a child a sense that they are cared for and valued?
The question Obama asked, however, is what can the country do? Not much, apparently. At least not now. “I’m not naive about the prospects of some grand, new federal program,” the president said.
On the other hand, Obama did point out that finding solutions to the crisis facing African American men and boys is “a long-term project” that will require a new level of political sophistication. Here we are more than a decade into the 21st century, and we’re still relying on 1960s-era protest politics to air our grievances.
I could fault Obama for waiting so long to speak out. I could say he sounded too much like young Barry and too little like the president, that he had no executive decisions to announce. But right now, I’m just impressed that he spoke out at all.
“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,” Obama said. “That happens to me, at least before I was a senator.”
Obama demurs. The bullet holes that appeared in the balcony off the White House family room back in 2011 did not come from the click of a lock on a car door. They came from a high-powered rifle. The kind of poisonous mind-set that contributed to the murder of civil rights advocates Medgar Evers and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. lives on.
Make no mistake about it: His speaking out required courage, and it was simply refreshing to see our first black president show some backbone in discussing race for a change.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.