The essential bet of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign was that the country was ready for an African-American president. He appealed to that same sense of hope again Friday in the White House briefing room. After a week of emotional reactions to the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, President Obama made a bet that he could contribute something useful in the aftermath, and that despite all of the partisanship of the last five years and America’s tragic history with the issue of race, there would be some portion of the audience that would actually listen to what he said. If it was a renewal of his original promise, it was also fulfillment of it for many. No other president could give that talk.
Obama spoke as a president, an African-American, and as a former law professor. The task he set for himself, according to sources close to him, was to be a bridge builder: explaining the hurt and anguish so many African-Americans feel in the wake of the verdict to those who don’t understand it or who might misunderstand it. He had been following the reactions in the press since the verdict and talking to his family and friends. He thought he would be asked about it during interviews earlier in the week. When he wasn’t, he told his staff yesterday that he wanted to speak out to put that anguish (and the protests and marches it has inspired) in context.
Context. The president used the word four times. It’s one of Obama’s favorite themes, along with balance. He was sounding both themes in a statement that was at once informal but carefully constructed. The former teacher of law said that the jury verdict should be honored; he took pains not to appear to be interfering with the jury’s judgment. But the first African-American president also knew he wanted to speak to the unresolved wound with authority.
President Obama the African-American returned to the themes of his first book, Dreams From My Father, talking at length about what it was like to be a black man in America. “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” (He too had smoked pot and made mischief as a kid.) He said he knew what it was like to have people lock their car door when you came near or what it was like to be followed by security in a department store. He spoke as a witness for African-Americans, describing the “sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.”
In an attempt to keep the message balanced, he also testified to the truth that African-American men are disproportionately linked to the criminal justice system and also “somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably, statistically, more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else.” As he called for “soul-searching” from all of us, he told African Americans that they needed to deal with the violence in their own communities.
President Obama the University of Chicago Law School lecturer turned questions inside out. Would the “stand your ground” law in Florida have allowed Trayvon Martin to stand his ground in the encounter? He spoke in the carefully calibrated language of the classroom, saying “if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.”
Finally, Barack Obama the president tried to offer some solutions. He was wary of a national “conversation” on race, but he made some halting suggestions. State and local governments should examine what they could do to reduce mistrust in the system. He asked citizens for their help, too, asking everyone to ask themselves: “Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.”
The moment was carefully orchestrated, which is also signature Obama. The Friday afternoon surprise appearance put this weekend’s marches in context, but it also downplayed the pomp of the moment. This was not a Presidential Speech on Race. The president was not trying to lecture anyone. He was trying to explain, maybe even nudge. Everything—his words, the forum, his manner—were designed to take the air out of the supercharged moment. For a president whose leadership and powers are constantly questioned, he was doing what he had come to office promising to do: help one part of America relate to another part of America.