In his famous 2008 speech on the subject of race, Barack Obama talked about the need for Americans to work together in overcoming the country's racial wounds.
"Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy -- particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own. But I have asserted a firm conviction -- a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people -- that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union."
But since becoming president, Obama has been hesitant in having that kind of honest conversation. The reasons are pretty obvious: the backlash from his comments about Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s arrest, America's polarized politics, the desire to win re-election in 2012.
Yet months removed from his re-election and days removed from the Zimmerman verdict, Obama on Friday dove head-first into the topic -- personally, surprisingly -- in remarks he delivered from the White House's press briefing room.
While he said that he respected the "not guilty" verdict in the Zimmerman trial, Obama stressed it was important to understand the context of the African-American community's reaction to it.
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 doesn’t go away.
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 wondered if the situation had been different if Trayvon Martin were white and George Zimmerman were black.
And that all contributes I think to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.
He also posed this hypothetical situation:
And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these "stand your ground" laws, I'd just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?
The president emphasized the need to "bolster and reinforce our African-American boys."
[T]his is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about. There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?
And then he called for "soul-searching" on the topic of race, as well as a recognition that progress on race relations has been made.
I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race... [W]e 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 grandparents did; and that along this long, difficult journey, we’re becoming a more perfect union -- not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.
"A more perfect union" -- that was the title of Obama's 2008 race speech. And it was a subject he returned to today.