Sometimes it's good to be proved wrong. Last week, I wrote a column doubting that President Barack Obama could speak powerfully and effectively about the racial issues raised by the Trayvon Martin case. Well, the president did just that.
Obama's remarks Friday — a surprise to reporters expecting the usual daily press briefing — were brief and informal. But they amounted to the most important speech about race our first African-American president has delivered in office.
My skepticism about whether Obama should even try to say anything meaningful about Martin's death and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, had nothing to do with the president's thoughtfulness or eloquence. I simply feared that whatever he said would be misconstrued — deliberately, by some — in a way that robbed his words of their intended meaning.
But Obama began by talking about himself. It was disarming to hear the most powerful man in the world speak of powerlessness.
“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son,” the president said. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” Obama noted that “the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away,” then narrowed his focus once again to the personal. I quote the next passage at length because, for me, it is the heart of the speech: “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. 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.”