When I tuned into President Obama’s impromptu remarks today in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, I was admittedly nervous and full of mixed emotions. For as much as I wanted the President to weigh in on the verdict, I knew that any comment would draw ire from at least one, if not multiple, constituent groups. Like many Americans, despite having some understanding of how it happened, I was still struggling to reconcile what was billed to be justice, yet just didn’t seem fair. I wondered what the President might say and whether commenting on the case would set poor precedent and invite future pressure or if saying anything at all would shift the focus away from the Martin family’s continued fight for equal justice.
Before he began, I braced myself because I was unsure which Obama would show up. The nation’s first black President has always had to operate from a precarious position on race matters and his approach has often drawn a wide range of reactions. In 2008, during his first campaign for the presidency, he delivered what many considered a groundbreaking speech on race, addressing the matter as someone of mixed heritage in the context of political pressure stemming from his ties to controversial clergyman Dr. Jerimiah Wright. That was Obama the candidate. As President, he has sometimes seemed too congenial on the topic, like when he invited black intellectual Skip Gates and a police officer to the White House for a beer and a “teachable moment” following the officer’s arrest of Gates in his own home. Even as the country digested the Zimmerman verdict from varied perspectives, friends and foes alike were quick to point to the coded language the President had used in addressing gun violence in his hometown of Chicago without ever squarely referencing black on black crime.
Still, as the President began to speak, all of those concerns disappeared. Any worries about a watered down or politicized speech immediately evaporated within Obama’s honest and heartfelt words. He gave a voice to the Black man in America, not as the President, but as a black man in America. The powerful irony of what he had to say was its context: a black man, the President of the United States of America, was identifying himself with a segment of the population that, despite achieving the highest office in the land, cannot escape the feeling of being marginalized to a place of second class citizenship.
He took his initial remarks on the case, about having a son who would look like Trayvon Martin, and stepped even further, remarking that 35 yrs. ago, he himself might have been Trayvon. I am usually loathe to speak in hyperbole, but I believe that today’s remarks may be the highlight of the Obama administration as it relates to black America. Osama Bin Laden may have been the most wanted man in the world, but he wasn’t keeping black men unemployed. The Affordable Health Care Act is great, but hasn’t stopped folks from catching hell. This meant something. It was HUGE. One of us, the President of the United States of America, was speaking to America for all of us. More than that, he was speaking through the lens of his own personal experience, and finally using the unique advantage he holds over his 43 predecessors, speaking from a place of empathy while they could only have hoped to speak from a place of sympathy.
In today’s speech, the President displayed a mastery of the tightrope that is addressing race in 2013 America while still being the President of all Americans. He did this by not ignoring the issue or being an apologist, but by speaking directly to it while still remaining an optimist and highlighting progress.
One thing that cannot be lost in terms of significance of the President’s remarks is the incredible amount of courage that he displayed. The President knows the backlash he will receive from those who prefer to act as if we are in a post-racial society. He knows the GOP, FOX News and others will accuse him of race-baiting and divisive tactics. He knows that even some within his own community will criticize him for taking too long or not saying enough. He didn’t HAVE to say anything.
But, he did.
He was sincere, he was thoughtful, and he was candid. But, more than that, he was finally the President that black America has been waiting on in a moment where, perhaps, we needed him most.
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a former King’s County (Brooklyn, NY) Assistant District Attorney and a federal civil rights trial attorney. Follow him on Twitter @CFColemanJr
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