In a major surprise, Barack Obama did something Friday that he hasn't done before as president: He talked very personally about his background as a black man and he discussed how negative racial experiences, shared widely in the African American community, shape blacks' views of the Trayvon Martin case.
"Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago," the president said.
Normally low-key and guarded when discussing race or other volatile issues, Obama gave a major and sometimes emotional speech on race in an unannounced appearance in the White House media briefing room. He said African Americans are justifiably upset and concerned by the Trayvon Martin case and the acquittal of George Zimmerman in Martin's shooting death. But he added: "The jury has spoken--that's how our system works."
He added that "the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away." He added that few African American men in the United States have escaped racial profiling or situations where white people have feared them simply because they were black.
He said, "There are very few African American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed in a department store. That includes me. 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."
Obama also referred to a history of "racial disparities" in the application of the law, from the death penalty to the enforcement of drug laws.
He said that African Americans aren't naive, and they recognize that young black men "disproportionately" are involved in the criminal justice system. But he attributed much of that to "a very violent past in this country" and a "dysfunction" that can be "traced to a very difficult history."
He said he is considering a "long-term project" to figure out ways to help "African American kids," especially boys and young men. And his administration is reviewing civil-rights laws and the issue of racial profiling.
His remarks were prompted by the much-publicized acquittal last weekend of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Martin, a 17-year-old black teenager, in Florida.
As I point out in my book, "Family of Freedom: Presidents and African Americans in the White House," presidents have shied away from tackling the race issue openly and directly, at least in modern times. Even presidents who sympathized with the grievances of African Americans, such as Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, were often reluctant to take actions that were too dramatic on racial matters for fear of alienating white voters or white members of Congress who were considering their overall legislative programs.
Lyndon Johnson was an exception as he pushed successfully for civil rights and voting rights legislation. But Johnson predicted that he would alienate many white voters from the Democratic party, especially in the South, because of his aggressive stance on racial issues, which turned out to be true.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," for usnews.com, and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Facebook and Twitter.