President Barack Obama just held a press conference—or rather gave a speech in the White House Press Room—devoted entirely to the Trayvon Martin verdict. It was an example of Obama at his best, with fine rhetoric and several moving moments. But the president also went slightly beyond other statements he has made about race, and he spoke with more passion than he has displayed in a long time. All in all, it was good rhetoric that seemed to recognize rhetoric was insufficient for the problems raised by the trial.
Obama began by discussing the verdict, before adding:
You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that—that doesn’t go away.
This was followed by a long list of things that young black men have been known to experience in American society: being followed in a department store, facing nervous people in elevators, and generally being looked upon as threatening. Obama mentioned that he himself had experienced these things, before, typically, trying to assume a position of even-handedness by adding:
Now, this isn’t to say that the African-American community is naive about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.
He tied it together by noting:
We understand 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.
And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And the fact that a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African-American boys are more violent—using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.
Obama then turned to Florida law, but departed from the specifics of the trial:
I know that there’s been commentary about the fact that the stand your ground laws in Florida were not used as a defense in the case.
On the other hand, if we’re sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there’s a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we’d like to see?
And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these “stand your ground” laws, I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?
And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.
This was probably the strongest section of the speech because it acknowledged what so many people, even those unfamiliar with the specifics of the case had been feeling: namely, that incidents like the one in Florida tend to be evaluated through the prism of race.
Obama followed this up with what seemed, simultaneously, like a subtle dig at his own penchant for speechifying and a reason for the continued existence of it:
And then finally, I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. You know, there have been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.
On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s a possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, 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.
In short, speechifying can only do so much, but a conversation is better than nothing. (If he truly believes this, it is certainly fair to ask why he hasn't done more of it in the last several years.)
Finally, two more things about the speech. The first is that if he is really considering appointing NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly—who has overseen the city's massive, controversial stop-and-fisk program—to head the Department of Homeland Security, he has dug a hole for himself. Obama stated:
You know, when I was in Illinois I passed racial profiling legislation. And it actually did just two simple things. One, it collected data on traffic stops and the race of the person who was stopped. But the other thing was it resourced us training police departments across the state on how to think about potential racial bias and ways to further professionalize what they were doing.
And initially, the police departments across the state were resistant, but actually they came to recognize that if it was done in a fair, straightforward way, that it would allow them to do their jobs better and communities would have more confidence in them and in turn be more helpful in applying the law. And obviously law enforcement’s got a very tough job.
So that’s one area where I think there are a lot of resources and best practices that could be brought to bear if state and local governments are receptive. And I think a lot of them would be. And—and let’s figure out other ways for us to push out that kind of training.
Good luck explaining a Kelly choice after that!
The second is the reaction this speech is sure to cause. It is impossible to discuss racism in this country without people accusing you of fomenting a race war, or of lecturing white people. Indeed, there is an entire conservative media apparatus that seems to solely exist to try and define our country's largest racial problem as the tendency of liberals and minorities to overemphasize racism. But that reaction is inevitable and, in 2013, not as prevalent as it might be. Obama should continue with these sorts of speeches. And more importantly, as he seems to realize, he needs to try and focus on not only changing minds but changing laws.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.