President Barack Obama finally told his truth about being black and male in America, a powerful 19-minute testimony that black people have been waiting to hear and white people needed to know.

In a deeply personal reflection about racial polarization, Obama used his White House bully pulpit to steadfastly align himself with black men in America and share their collective pain of racial discrimination and cultural isolation.

Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Obama said Friday in the White House briefing room.  “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.”

For Obama, a man of bi-racial heritage, – his mother was white, his father Kenyan – he could no longer walk a tightrope along the racial fault lines. The president may have agonized over precisely what to say last week, but he ultimately decided to speak out.

It was the right decision.

For all the black men in America who suffer racial indignities; for all the black men who have been called the N-word by racists; for all the black men who feel marginalized — and invisible — in this republic, Obama, the nation’s first black president, stood with them.

“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,” Obama said. “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.”

I was struck by Obama’s candid explanation of the constant emotional agony that many black Americans have endured for decades as well as the continued racial challenges facing black men regardless of social status.

The president’s testimony was also noteworthy for what he didn’t say: “A rising tide lifts all boats” — which has been Obama’s weary mantra when reluctantly confronting the issue of race.

But after days of soul searching, Obama preached to the choir while addressing black Americans last week, but he also spoke directly to white Americans by explaining in historic terms the harsh realities of racist behavior directed toward black men.

It was a truthful tutorial on race from the perspective of a black commander-in-chief.

“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,” Obama said.  “That includes me.”

And why shouldn’t the president talk honestly about race to the American people? Why shouldn’t Obama, as a black man, share his thoughts about the black male experience in America?

Obama’s remarks on race couldn’t have come at a more critical time – six days after a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of killing Trayvon Martin, a black unarmed teenager who Zimmerman followed and shot to death because Zimmerman thought the 17-year-old looked suspicious. Since the shooting, white and black Americans have been sharply divided and many African Americans urged Obama to speak out.

Last week, Eugene Robinson, a black columnist for The Washington Post, wrote that Obama is not the right person to lead a national conversation on race.

“President Obama is not the best person to lead the discussion. Through no fault of his own, he might be the worst,” Robinson wrote before Obama made his comments about race.

I disagree – and I would also argue that Obama is already not-so-subtly leading a much-needed conversation about race—a conversation that Americans are engaged in right now while sitting in living rooms, offices, churches, barber shops and beauty salons all across America.

Meanwhile, Obama’s right-wing critics are claiming that he’s dividing blacks and whites by taking America in the wrong direction. And talk show host Tavis Smiley, a frequent critic of Obama, called the president’s remarks “weak as pre-sweetened Kool Aid” and accused Obama of shrinking from his moral responsibilities.

That’s nonsense.

We’ll look back on Obama’s extraordinary White House testimony as a defining moment in his presidency, an unprecedented come-to-Jesus moment where Obama spoke to the nation as a proud black man who stands in solidarity with other black men who have felt the sting of racism.

This may become one of those profound moments in American history where years from now black grandsons may ask their grandfathers this moving question: “Where were you when President Obama reminded America that he was a black man?”

(Photo: AP)

17 thoughts on “COMMENTARY: Obama is Right to Speak About the Sting of Racism

  1. Jeremiah on said:

    you guys are all dumb, and you’re missing the point of what martin luther king jr wanted. boo. as an african american male, we shouldnt be talking about how divided we are, but how we need to be more together.

  2. Sheila on said:

    Tavis and Cornell are disgusting and jealous petty little boys. “Men” of their stature should be working with the President to present a productive and positive example for our children. But all we get is moaning and backstabbing from them while the line their pockets for those who hate the President. Just an ignorant and disgusting show by two boys that I once thought were brilliant.

  3. FIFTY AND PHUNE on said:

    Glad the President exercises his right for Freedom of Speech because everyone has exercised their right to Freedom of Speech to dog him since he has been in office. It’s just amazing how when the President said “those kids could have been my kids” when Sandy Hook happened everyone said great. He spoke as a parent which was personal. But the minute he said “He could have been Trayvon Martin 35 years ago” which was also personal now folks got a problem.

  4. I agree with Tavis. President Obama was pushed by his own conscience as a Black Man who is now President of the United States. President Obama must Admit he’s been quiet due to all the overt and covert attack from the GOP as it relates to the plight of the Black Race in this nation. The problem as I see it is this nation Cant Handle the Truth and has Ignored What Black People in this nation have gone through every since Slavery. The Laws Need to be Fixed and If you ask me; Reparations should be provided any Black family that can prove their great grands were slaves and have lived here for the past 100 years. There is too much evidence out their of this Injustice for Black boys and Black Women.

    • Robert on said:

      Reparations by WHOM?
      No one alive today was engaged in slavery or was a slave.
      Slavery predates our ability to write.
      Every single race on this planet has been enslaved by one nation or another throughout history.
      The Romans enslaved millions for their games, workers and as sex slaves.
      The Greeks had at least one slave per household.
      The Spartans enslaved entire populations during the 8th and 7th century BC

      Did you know that pre-Civil War there were around 262,000 free blacks living in the South, and that 28% of them owned slaves?
      Did you know that right now Africans and Arabs are enslaving Black people in Africa?
      Did you know that it was the Democrats that ruled AGAINST Freedom from slavery and that the GOP was at the forefront of the battle to grant freedom to blacks and other slaves?

      So who are you expecting reparations from?

  5. When the president spoke the other day about the race issue I actually cried. I am 71 years old and never thought I would see a Black man in the white house and then to hear him speak up with courage made my heart sing.

    • M.H. on said:

      You can’t help but get emotionally over Obama’s statement. If there were any doubts about racism and racial profiling existing in America, he confirmed it for those people. The world was watching and America’s ugly history is out for the world to see that America is still struggling with the outcome of its past. America and Black Americans are like an abusive relationship. Are Black Americans suppose to love their abuser no matter what? No. Are Black Americans suppose to just keeping taking the injustice. No. I’m glad the world is finally talking about it. We may not all agree with everything, but change is coming. It may be hard to counsel the mass, but I believe we’re are finally starting in the right direction. Much respect President Obama!!

      • Cindy on said:

        It has always been there, it’s just been ignored. The President stands on a banna peel everyday. If his statement was quiet, so be it;at least he made one. How would you like to come through a door everyday hoping a rope isn’t on the other side of it when you walk thru! There are people in this world who would like to hurt the President and his family; he has to be careful with what he says.

      • I totally agree. My 31 year old daughter said the President put white folks in America “On Blast”. Basically he said, we see ya’ll and we hear ya’ll and we feel the uncalled for hatred. And how dare you get mad because we see your mess… We are the ones who have the right to be angry and mad… All the way (As Rev. Sharpton says, from slavery to Jim Crow to James Crow Esq…

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