Commentary: A President Speaks Personally – as a Black Man

Obama offers a deeply personal and effective message about race in America in the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict.

Posted: 07/19/2013 03:10 PM EDT

In a moment for which he prepared no one and that took all of the country by surprise, President Obama delivered truly remarkable and deeply personal remarks about race in America in the aftermath of the verdict that found George Zimmerman not guilty in the death of Trayvon Martin.

For much of his presidency, Obama has rarely if ever stuck his toe into the highly-charged waters of racial discussion. In Friday’s remarks, however, he has plunged forcefully into the deep end of the pool.

The president strode away from discussing policy in any in-depth way. He made it clear that he would not weigh in on such matters as what the Justice Department’s role should be in bringing civil rights charges against Zimmerman.

Instead, Obama spoke in a manner that only a Black president could and he was revealing his most unapologetically Black persona. And he did so in a historic and compelling way. He spoke of the pain of being misjudged and profiled because of racial bias, talking about the fact that he, too, has felt it. He spoke of the historic and still present challenge of being a young Black man in America and being undervalued by society. And he spoke about why so many in this country, particularly African-Americans, have grieved over the Zimmerman verdict.

“In the African-American community, there is a lot of pain to what happened here,” the president said about the reaction to the verdict. “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 added: “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 was breathtaking when he spoke of the historic, relentless role that racial bias has played in the African-American community. He said before that if he had a son, that youngster might well have been like the unarmed teenager who was shot by Zimmerman 17 months ago. On Friday, the president made it even more personal. “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”

The remarks were not entirely devoid of policy discussions, however. The president made it clear that there is a host of state and local legislation, like Florida’s horrendous stand your ground law, whose wisdom was questionable and that could well benefit from being revisited.

“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 diffuse potential altercations,” the president said.

Obama, the onetime community organizer, emerged. He said there was a need for solutions to racial disparities that have long come from the work of people in religious institutions, community activists and community organizations.

As gratifying as it was to hear the president speak boldly of the need for racial progress, one can’t help but feel the urge to get braced for the reaction and response from people who share neither his background nor perspective. That is sure to come from the far right — and not-so-far right — who look at this president as the embodiment of everything that is problematic with America.

But for now, many Americans will rightly look at the president’s thoughtful and mature remarks as a solid, forward-looking step after the depressing Zimmerman verdict. It wisely calls for the nation to look forward with a sense of purpose in solving the long term racial issues.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

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