Friday, July 19, 2013

Last Call For One Hell Of A Presidential Briefing

This afternoon, President Obama made an unannounced appearance at the daily White House press briefing to make some heartfelt and thoughtful remarks on the George Zimmerman verdict and race in America.

But I did want to just talk a little bit about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling. 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.

And 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 you know, 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.

Now, this isn’t to say that the African-American community is naive about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.

Context. It's a hell of a thing, and the piece of the national conversation on race we've been missing.  As President, Barack Obama today stepped up and delivered a speech with the necessary context that we've been sorely needing on having a real discussion about what the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman means to people.

Do read the entire transcript, or watch the briefing above.  It's the most honest starting point on this issue I've seen or heard all week. The NY Times editorial board summed it up thusly:

Mr. Obama said Americans needed to give African-American boys “the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them.” 

He said he was not talking about “some grand, new federal program” or even a national “conversation on race,” which he said often ends up being “stilted and politicized” and reaffirm pre-existing positions. 

In a way, Mr. Obama began that conversation today, while he spoke directly to African Americans who have longed to hear him identify with their frustrations and their anger. 

It is a great thing for this country to have a president who could do what Mr. Obama did today. It is sad that we still need him to do it.

PS, not bad for a guy with no teleprompter, huh.

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