President Obama waded back into the turbulent waters of racial conditions in America Friday when he gave a very personal response to a question about how the controversial shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American in Florida, has affected him. Obama said, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."
They were the first comments from Obama, the first African American president, about the Martin case, which has stirred outrage around the country, especially among African Americans. George Zimmerman, 28, a self-styled neighborhood watch participant, claimed self-defense after shooting the unarmed Martin on February 26 in a suburb of Orlando.
Obama was asked about the case Friday morning during his Rose Garden announcement of a new president of the World Bank.
He said he would be restrained in his comments because the Justice Department is investigating, but added: "I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this. All of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how does something like this happen."
Obama is clearly aware of the furor his comments caused the last time he waded into a high-profile racial incident. Asked at a news conference in 2009 about the arrest of a famous African-American professor from Harvard at his home, Obama said the white arresting officer acted "stupidly." Obama later said he had spoken prematurely, before he had all the facts. And he had the professor, Henry Louis Gates, Jr, and the officer, James Crowley, over to the White House for beers as a conciliatory gesture.
On Friday, a grim-faced Obama said of the Florida shooting, "Obviously, this is a tragedy. I can only imagine what these parents are going through. When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids."
At the end of his remarks, his answer got even more personal when he talked about the victim's grieving parents: "You know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon. I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves and we are going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened."
The issue of race has always been a difficult one for Obama. He has benefited from overwhelming support from African American voters, which has been essential to his success. But he has had trouble appealing to some whites, particularly those in the working class who are skeptical of his desire to help them, according to polls.
In an interview with Obama for my recent book, Family of Freedom, Obama said he had no plans to develop an African-American agenda focused specifically on the black community, a view he repeated on Friday. He said his overall agenda would help everyone, including blacks. Democratic strategists add that it would be unwise for Obama to appear to be playing favorites on race, and they say he is being smart to reject the demands of black activists that he focus more intensely on African-Americans and their problems at a time when so many other Americans are having trouble making ends meet.
But Friday, Obama seemed to be eager to weigh in on the Florida incident and express his empathy for the family of the African-American victim.