This was the kind of speech that civil-rights leaders have always been calling on President Barack Obama to give.
At length on Friday, during a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room, Obama spoke off-the-cuff about the death of Trayvon Martin and racial profiling in America.
“He should be commended and recognised,” Hilary Shelton, the director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, told Business Insider. “… It’ll go down as one of the most important of his presidency.”
Obama’s speech found some detractors, but even those who are normally his harshest critics — like Fox News contributor and RedState editor Erick Erickson — said they didn’t have a problem with it.
It was a rare moment for the normally polarising presidency of Barack Obama — one in which both Erickson and Al Sharpton both praised him for a key moment in his time in office. Both Sharpton and Shelton called the speech “historic.” Fox News host Chris Wallace compared it to memorable Obama speeches after the mass shootings in Arizona in 2011 and Newtown, Conn., last year.
“Wow! We really do have a black president!” the liberal MSNBC host Toure said.
Robert Zimmerman, the brother of George Zimmerman, appeared on Fox News and, amid prodding questioning, applauded Obama’s remarks as “sincere.”
“I’m glad he spoke out today,” Zimmerman said, later adding that he would have asked Obama to expand his encouragement to “youth of all colours.”
“It might be in situations in their life that they don’t feel like they’re getting the encouragement from society that they need. That’s one of the things my brother was doing before this incident,” Zimmerman said.
This was one of the few times that Obama, the nation’s first black president, has waded into America’s broader debate on race — something he has tried, mostly, to avoid throughout his time in office. The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehesi Coates pointed out that he has spoken less about race than any other Democratic president since 1961. Obama said Friday, in fact, that he doesn’t much care for the proverbial national “discussion on race” or calls to create one.
This was also his most unscripted. In 2008, amid furor over his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama gave an address — “A More Perfect Union” — that was large in scope and rehearsed. This time, he stood at the podium of the White House briefing room without a TelePrompTer, pausing and looking down at points to collect his thoughts and put them into words.
This time, he spoke more from the perspective as an African-American than he ever has as president.
“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.
“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. That happens often.
“And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear. The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.”
It was clear that Obama wanted to end his surprise speech with a nod to the future, which he did by reminding the nation of progress in racial attitudes.
He is betting on the future — one that includes his daughters, Malia and Sasha. We’re not in a post-racial society, he said. Someday, he hopes, we’ll get there.
“Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn’t mean we’re in a post-racial society,” Obama said. “It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But when I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are — they’re better than we were — on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.
“And so we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues. And those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature, as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions. But we should also have confidence that kids these days, I think, have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grand.”
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