President Obama says he doubts whether he or any other politician could play a lead role in a national “conversation” about race in America today.
“I haven't seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations,” he said at the White House Friday, an observation in the middle of his long, unscripted comments on the shooting death of Trayvon Martin – except that what he said certainly will be seen as a key moment in just such a conversation.
Five years into his presidency, Mr. Obama spoke movingly and at length about the case of an unarmed teenager killed by self-appointed neighborhood “watch” volunteer George Zimmerman, apparently suspicious of, following, and then ignoring the direction of a 911 police dispatcher to confront the black youth.
“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,” Obama said. “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.” (Obama's full speech here.)
The reaction to Obama’s 18-minute unannounced oration in the White House press room Friday came quickly and across the political spectrum.
“I’m glad he spoke up today,” Robert Zimmerman, George Zimmerman’s brother and a family spokesman told FOX News. “I think he was very sincere in his remarks.”
“No matter what your opinion of the verdict is, there have to be things that bring us together, there have to be teachable moments that we learn from what happened here,” Robert Zimmerman said.
Elsewhere on the conservative cable channel, the comments had a sharper edge.
Fox’s Sean Hannity suggests that the main reason Obama identifies with Trayvon is that the two as teenagers had smoked marijuana.
On Facebook, Fox News radio host Todd Starnes wrote that Obama’s comments about the Trayvon Martin shooting makes the president “Race-Baiter in Chief.”
“His remarks today on the Trayvon Martin tragedy are beyond reprehensible,” Starnes wrote.
Other defenders of George Zimmerman, found not guilty by a jury of six, seemed to better understand what Obama was trying to do.
“Ppl say we need to have an honest conversation about race. Sounds like the President tried to start one. Don't see the need to attack,” tweeted Eric Ericson, conservative editor-in-chief of RedState.com.
"It takes courage to talk about race,” Mark O'Mara, Zimmerman's lawyer, said in a statement. “It took courage for our President to address the Zimmerman Case and candidly discuss how and why people are upset by the verdict."
Ana Navarro, a Republican consultant, said she cringed at first when she heard the president had spoken about the case.
"I cringed because I think the last thing we need is to insert politics into what is already a very divisive, emotional debate," she told the Associated Press. "When I actually read his words, I thought he had been measured, respectful of the legal process."
Many in the African-American community have wanted more from Obama on race in the nation today, which they trace back to what’s been called “America’s original sin” of slavery.
"I think African Americans in particular wanted him to speak to an issue that deals with race as African Americans see it, and I think African Americans are pleased he's done so," Brenda Stevenson, a history professor at the University of California Los Angeles, told the AP. "But I think the president wanted to do so without alienating other people."
But civil rights leader and MSNBC host Al Sharpton, whose National Action Network is planning rallies in 100 cities to press for federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman on Saturday, called the president's words historic.
"There is nothing more powerful than the president of the United States, for the first time in history, saying, 'I know how they feel,'" he said.
As they have been throughout their ordeal, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, Trayvon Martin’s parents, were dignified and respectful in their response to Obama’s comments Friday.
“We are deeply honored and moved that President Obama took the time to speak publicly and at length about our son,” they said in a statement. “The President’s comments give us great strength at this time.”
“President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him,” they said. “This is a beautiful tribute to our boy.”
If there is to be any conversation on race, Obama said, the most important part may be private – like prayer.
Individual Americans should “do some soul-searching” about their own racial biases, he said, asking 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," he said.