An emotional President Obama gave a surprise speech about the Zimmerman trial in the White House briefing room this morning, saying that "Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago," and refuting the idea that race had nothing to do with the case. Obama called Stand Your Ground laws into question, saying that the case likely would have played out differently if "Trayvon Martin was of age and armed," wondering if "we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman" in the same situation.
This was a remarkable moment. President Obama doesn't often speak publicly without thinking everything through, but here he appeared to be coming up with new thoughts even while he was speaking. Obama discussed profiling, saying that most every African-American man in America, himself included, has "had the experience of being followed when shopping in a store." He suggested that America is failing black boys and teens. He called for "soul searching" as a nation.
Obama did conclude that things as a nation are gradually getting better. He said that his daughters are "better than we are. They're better than we were." He called back to his climactic campaign speech about race when he said that America is a "more perfect union," but not "a perfect union." The appearance was a strong reminder of the ceremonial power of the presidency, as well as a rare moment in which President Obama takes the issue of race in America head-on. Republicans on Twitter are already calling Obama "America's first Racist-in-Chief" because of today's appearance, and conservative bloggers are no doubt publishing posts right now about President Obama launching a race war in America. But this wasn't that kind of speech. This was a very smart, thoughtful man wrestling publicly with an issue that has followed him (and in many ways, defined him) for his entire life. This was an attempt to start a conversation about issues that matter, after a week of nonsense and hate and confusion. It was one of the most powerful, raw, uncensored moments of President Obama's entire public life.