Trayvon in perspective

“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.” With that poignant reminder, President Obama began his remarks on the Trayvon Martin case last Friday in the White House briefing room.

Obama had been strangely silent all week. Asked repeatedly if the president planned to make a statement about the verdict, press secretary Jay Carney would only say Obama would make his views known in due time. But, in five interviews, five different journalists never asked the question. 

So the president decided to come out on his own, and he gave some of the most powerful comments of his presidency. For the first time, Obama spoke as a black man addressing white America. And in just 17 minutes, he made more sense about the Trayvon Martin case than all the millions of words spoken and written about it since George Zimmerman pulled the trigger.

Yes, we accept the jury’s verdict, said the president. But it’s also fair to question that verdict. In fact, because seeing Zimmerman walk was such a shock, it’s important we do so. Then, as only he could, Obama explained why white people could never see this case through the same eyes that African-Americans do. Because, with them, it’s rooted in personal experience.

When it comes to racial profiling, the president pointed out: “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.” That experience, and others like it, Obama noted, “inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.” It is, he noted, a deep-rooted “history that doesn’t go away.”

That same experience, he could also have added, informed how African-Americans felt about what happened to 22-year-old Oscar Grant on Dec. 31, 2008, at a BART station in Oakland, Calif., as gut-wrenchingly related in the just-released and most timely movie “Fruitvale Station.” Go see it!

The president did not glorify African-American youth. He granted that too many are involved in violence. But we still can’t deny the system today is stacked against black males. Obama asked: What if the roles were reversed? We know the answer: Trayvon Martin would already be in prison.  

Finally, the president ended with a challenge: to channel our anger into an honest re-examination of today’s self-defense and “stand your ground” laws, to make sure they haven’t become a convenient excuse for people to commit murder and get away with it. 

It’s a tough job, being president. You have to be commander in chief, economist in chief, cheerleader in chief, and mourner in chief all at once. And sometimes you also have to be teacher in chief, as Obama was on Friday. He looked inside himself and inspired us to look inside ourselves. The national conversation on race starts right here.

Press is host of “The Full-Court Press” on Current TV and author of The Obama Hate Machine.