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Obama Explains Black America To White America

President Obama tackled race head-on in his first on-camera response to George Zimmerman's acquittal in the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.
Carolyn Kaster
President Obama tackled race head-on in his first on-camera response to George Zimmerman's acquittal in the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.

The days are few and far between when President Obama has intentionally reminded us that he is the first African-American president.

Friday was one.

The president did something no other holder of his office has ever had the life experience to do: He used the bully pulpit to, as an African-American, explain black America to white America in the wake of last week's acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.

Appearing unannounced before surprised reporters who were expecting the White House press secretary, it was Obama — "the bridge" as New Yorker editor David Remnick has called him — trying to span a divide. It was Obama trying to help white Americans comprehend black America's reaction to the Martin-Zimmerman tragedy.

To a degree, it was reminiscent of the widely hailed Philadelphia speech Obama made during the 2008 presidential campaign to explain American racial realities during the controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

For that moment, Obama's bridge went two ways as he explained whites to blacks and blacks to whites. That speech found Obama standing between two races as the son of a black African father and white American mother and translating for each side.

Not so with Friday's remarks: They were one way. The president focused on why so many African-Americans have reacted as if they were gut-punched from the time they first learned of the circumstances surrounding the shooting until the verdict. He made no attempt to explain whites to blacks.

To whites who have insisted the case wasn't about race, the president explained why so many blacks disagree. In a powerful reminder of his unique place in history, he cited his own personal experience as an African-American.

You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. 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 — that doesn't go away.

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.

While other presidents have had their common-man stories of hardship or challenge, this is first time a president has been able to tell this particular story of being a minority who was racially profiled.

Or the story of the head of the Justice Department, for that matter. Just days ago Attorney General Eric Holder told of how, when he was a U.S. attorney, police stopped him as he ran down a Washington street because he was trying to make it to a movie.

The president is right that it seems like almost every African-American male has at least one story about being profiled. As a teenager in New York City heading to basketball games with teammates I was twice stopped by police officers who held their guns on us because, they said, we fit the description of crime suspects they were looking for. We were walking while black.

While he was ever Obama, gentle and cautious in his comments, the president made clear his strong disagreement with those who suggest blacks should be more concerned about violence by blacks against other blacks than by whites against blacks since the former poses the greater threat to young black males.

This made for another striking moment. Obama essentially said to white Americans "we get it," but he went further. He suggested that what bothers many blacks is that too many whites act as if this violence came out of nowhere. Or if not nowhere, out of some moral or other difference in black people.

We understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.

And so the fact that sometimes that's unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And the fact that a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African-American boys are more violent — using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.

It's potent stuff to blame the violence in black neighborhoods on the violence and poverty tens of millions of blacks have been subjected to over the course of American history. It was Obama telling many white Americans to stop blaming the victim.

Obama's Friday comments very likely went some way toward satisfying many African-Americans who had wanted to hear from the president ever since the Zimmerman verdict came down — and wondered where he was. Aside from a brief written statement issued shortly after Zimmerman was acquitted, he had been quiet on the issue.

Conservative reaction ranged from unimpressed to scornful.

For a president who has in the past drawn significant criticism from many blacks for lecturing to African-American audiences about the need to be more responsible parents, Friday's message came from a completely different direction.

Interestingly, though, in a way it came from the same place, the president's identity as African-American. As the nation's first black president, he has been in the unique position of being able to speak to black audiences about the need for greater responsibility.

But it was also that very African-Americaness that allowed him to speak so personally and honestly about the Martin-Zimmerman case and to be the bridge to whites that might help them better understand what so many blacks have been experiencing.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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