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Editorial: Explainer in-Chief; Obama Parses the Trial Reaction

At a time when our national politics produce vastly more heat than light, President Obama interrupted the tiresome theatrics to speak forthrightly about a profoundly difficult and important matter— divergent public reaction to the Trayvon Martin verdict, which, because it is about the killing of an unarmed black teenager, is ultimately about race. Raising that particular topic is almost certainly a no-win proposition for this country’s first black president, which probably explains why Obama has mostly avoided it since taking office. But he proved just how instructive it can be for the rest of us. It’s hard to imagine hearing or reading the remarks that Obama delivered last Friday without being impressed by their sincerity and insight.

Obama’s observations about the contrasting reactions to the acquittal of George Zimmerman offered what no president before him could — a personal perspective shaped by the collective experience of black Americans. Obama can no more speak for black America than can any other individual, but he can speak powerfully and from personal experience about what it’s like to be judged by skin color — and why a black community that has dealt with that burden for generations would be deeply affected by a trial arising from the tragic death that, by many indications, occurred because an innocent young black man was presumed to be up to no good. That community is also acutely aware of the wide disparity in how its members have been treated by the criminal justice system as compared with whites. So, while Obama opened his remarks by essentially acknowledging that the trial itself had all the earmarks of being fair, history and the circumstances of the killing make it hard for most black Americans to swallow the outcome.

“(T)hey get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there’s no context for it and that context is being denied,” he said. “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.”

It is that context, of course, that helps explain the findings of a recent Washington Post/ABC news poll: While a slim majority of white Americans approved of the trial’s verdict, 86 percent of African-Americans disapproved, nearly all of them strongly so.

The context for Obama’s personal reaction to the verdict and the ensuing reaction was his signature, almost preternatural, even-handedness. He made clear that his remarks were intended to serve as a way to understand the emotions stirred by the verdict, not as criticism of the verdict itself (in fact, he praised the judge for how she conducted the trial and noted that the jury was properly instructed about the relevancy of reasonable doubt). He acknowledged the fact that a disproportionate number of young black men find themselves in the criminal justice system, although he also pointed out that some of the violence that afflicts black communities is “born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.”

And he had the wisdom to remind the country that despite these painful incidents and the deep racial disparities that remain, this country has made substantial progress and is continuing to do so — “we’re becoming a more perfect union — not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.”

It’s hard to say how much Obama’s prescriptions — additional training for law enforcement to cultivate trust in minority communities; rethinking “stand-your-ground” laws that increase the chances of tragic violence; more support for and positive reinforcement of African-American boys; personal soul-searching about racial stereotyping — would accomplish in nudging American society further along the road of progress. But because Obama’s remarks aimed to aid healing by promoting understanding, offered passion that had been leavened with thoughtfulness, and treated Americans as intelligent adults capable of hearing their leaders offer nuanced opinions, we found them refreshing and moving.