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Mitchell: Obama’s comments were ‘on point’ about race and Zimmerman

Updated: August 24, 2013 6:29AM

It is always risky to speak for the African-American community.

Black people can see the same situation through different lenses depending upon their circumstances, education, background and personal experiences.

But President Barack Obama’s comments about the black community’s reaction to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin were on time and on point.

Frankly, I was disappointed with the president’s initial statement that “we are a nation of laws and, a jury has spoken,” because his remarks ignored the black community’s enormous pain.

Last Friday, however, the president spoke as a black man.

“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,” Obama said during a press briefing.

Washington Bureau Chief Lynn Sweet reported that Obama wanted to “wait and see what the reaction would be in African-American and other communities across the nation” before speaking out about the verdict.

Except for a few isolated incidents, protesters have calmly participated in demonstrations demanding that the U.S. Department of Justice review this case. Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s parents, handled the acquittal with extraordinary grace.

As a biracial American who identifies as African-American, Obama understands the resentment and anger the black community feels over the death of Trayvon Martin.

It’s a pain that a lot of whites have a difficult time grasping.

After all, black people kill black people every day.

Just this past weekend in Chicago, six men were killed and at least 24 people were shot, including a 6-year-old girl. For the most part, the shootings happened in predominantly black neighborhoods, and the victims of the shootings were mostly African-American.

There are no coast-to-coast marches planned to demand that the federal government step in and stop the killings.

This contradiction is not lost on people who would wave the Zimmerman acquittal like a victory banner. But there also are whites who genuinely do not understand the depth of the pain many blacks feel over this issue.

Obama put himself in a position to speak on behalf of a group that has become easily ignored. For instance, with all due respect, whites — at least those I hear from — aren’t listening to anything civil rights leaders like the Revs. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. or Al Sharpton have to say about Trayvon Martin.

That is likely one reason the president decided to use his platform to address the racial dynamics that Zimmerman’s defense lawyers successfully deflected.

“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,” Obama said in his remarks on Friday.

That’s just the bottom line.

To argue now as some have, that it was on Trayvon to call police if he felt threatened by Zimmerman, is to miss the point.

Black teenagers shouldn’t have to worry that they’re going to be followed in certain areas just because they are black. And black parents shouldn’t have to stick a tag on their teen’s forehead advising others that the teen is not armed and dangerous.

As Obama pointed out, “[T]here 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,” he said. “And 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.”

In the past, Obama had to be poked before he would comment on racial matters, as he was in 2008 when he was forced to respond to criticisms over his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

For the rest of his first term, Obama danced around tough questions about race, even to the point of holding a beer summit to deal with the controversial arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor, and friend.

But as the nation’s first black president, Obama has a duty to share his insights on race even when doing so makes us uncomfortable.

It looks like he is ready to live up to that responsibility.

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