President Obama's surprise remarks Friday afternoon about the Trayvon Martin case, racial profiling and race more broadly was almost certainly his most extensive remarks about the role race plays in American life — and the role it has played in his own — since his presidency began.
For Obama, discussing race has been especially treacherous. When he weighed in on the case last year — "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon" — his comments were viewed by many as an attempt to humanize Trayvon and empathize with his family, while many other people felt he was attempting to put his thumb on the scale in the case. (His comments came before George Zimmerman had been charged.)
But that's perhaps what made the president's surprise remarks in the White House briefing room so fascinating. "You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son," he said. "Another way of saying that is, Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago."
The president tried to contextualize the reaction that so many African-Americans had to the trial and the issue of racial profiling by talking about his own experiences.
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. 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. There are very few African-Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
And I don't want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it's inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear. The African-American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.
Contrast that with his initial, markedly less pointed statement on the verdict earlier in the week.
It's not clear just yet what prompted the president to revisit the verdict, but his statements came just days after Attorney General Eric Holder sharply critiqued stand your ground self-defense laws like the ones in Florida. (Stand your ground wasn't directly invoked in George Zimmerman's trial, but it has been a major part of the discussion surrounding the trial.) In his comments, Holder got pretty personal as well.
The news of Trayvon Martin's death last year, and the discussions that have taken place since then, reminded me of my father's words so many years ago. And they brought me back to a number of experiences I had as a young man — when I was pulled over twice and my car searched on the New Jersey Turnpike when I'm sure I wasn't speeding, or when I was stopped by a police officer while simply running to a catch a movie, at night in Georgetown, in Washington, D.C. I was at the time of that last incident a federal prosecutor.
Trayvon's death last spring caused me to sit down to have a conversation with my own 15-year-old son, like my dad did with me. This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down. But as a father who loves his son and who is more knowing in the ways of the world, I had to do this to protect my boy. I am his father and it is my responsibility, not to burden him with the baggage of eras long gone, but to make him aware of the world he must still confront. This is a sad reality in a nation that is changing for the better in so many ways.
There were points of divergence, of course; they were speaking to different audiences. (Holder was addressing the national convention of the NAACP, and his comments on the Zimmerman verdict were part of a speech addressing other civil rights issues, like voting rights.)
The week since the verdict has seen countless black men recount and lament being treated with suspicion as they moved through the world. Now, remarkably, the president of the United States and the nation's top law enforcement official add their voices to that chorus.