Friday, in the biggest speech on race he has ever made, the president got it right. In a statement to the White House press corps, President Obama moved beyond his initial response to the Zimmerman verdict and directly addressed race in America. Already there is a growing frenzy of social media outbursts in response to the president’s comments, some of which have already been compiled into a PolicyMic article. I have disagreed with a variety of things President Obama has said over the years but I found the president’s remarks special in this case because his statement was not about policy or even directly about the Zimmerman case — it was about the persistence of race perceptions in America.
The message President Obama projected to the country was powerful because he related the common feelings and experiences of young black men to his own. It rationalized the frustration many black Americans feel about the historical challenges they have faced.
“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,” said the president. “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.”
President Obama explained that instances such as these are experiences that lead African-American communities to draw comparisons to what occurred that night in Florida. “I think it's important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a — and a history that — that doesn't go away.”
He expressed how a great deal of the frustration felt in these communities is the lack of acknowledgment that “some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country. And that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.”
Another paramount aspect of the president’s comments was his acknowledgment that “African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they're disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence.” In fact, African-American communities are well aware of this sobering fact.
As a young American myself, I believe it is imperative for people not to forget the oppressive history that African-Americans have faced in this country and to have an appreciation of the sentiments the Zimmerman case has evoked in these communities. I respect the verdict that was handed down by the jury, but I know that the racially charged aspects of this case are vital to confronting this ongoing struggle.
Racial equality is linked to historical context, social and economic disparity, and acceptance. The tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death should urge us all to continue to ask ourselves, “Am I judging people as much as I can based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?” Character. Not the color of their skin.
Immense progress has occurred in our history — 50 years ago, it was forbidden for a black man and a white man to go to school together. Five years ago, the American people chose to elect the first African-American president of the U.S. It is right for President Obama to address the issue of race, especially in the framework of his own experiences as an African-American man. His comments are significant and necessary for the nation to continue this discussion, in our journey to form “a more perfect Union.”