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President Obama made an unexpected and remarkable appearance today at the daily White House press briefing. He said he wanted to speak about the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of the man who shot him to death, George Zimmerman. Obama noted that he commented briefly after the verdict this past weekend, but he added, I thought it might be useful for me to expand on my thoughts a little bit.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.
CORNISH: The president proceeded to talk for nearly 17 minutes, speaking broadly about law enforcement, race and the African-American experience. Reaction is starting to roll in. Angelo Henderson speaks about things like this every day as host of "Your Voice with Angelo Henderson," a daily program on Radio One Detroit. He joins us now from our member station, WDET. Welcome, Angelo.
ANGELO HENDERSON: Thank you very much.
CORNISH: So your initial reaction to the president's words?
HENDERSON: Wow. We've been cheering, and the community here has really been supportive of President Barack Obama being the first African-American president. But today, he showed his colors. He showed that he was truly part of the African-American community, and I think so many people have been waiting for him to unveil that part of himself and to be free to do so.
Pretty much he's been held to almost like a colorlessness because he's the president of the United States, not the president of black America per se, but there were certain expectations that I think the community had. And Trayvon Martin is really one of those where people were saying, please, say something, do something, because I think, largely, the African-American community wants him to succeed, and they want a connecting point.
CORNISH: But was there a sense that Obama had been missing in action on this issue and that people were waiting for a statement?
HENDERSON: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely, you know? But people also give him the benefit of the doubt to say, you know, that I'm sure he is going to say something, and it just - and people have just been waiting. But I think, today, he showed his brother card, you know? He talked about being African-American, being racially profiled as a kid, walking around the store, having people follow him.
He connected with locks being clicked on doors when he's been walking past a vehicle or a woman clutching her purse when he's in the elevator. He connected with so many African-American men who have been in those same situations.
CORNISH: Critics of the president's handling of these issues have often accused him of fanning the flames, making things worse or being divisive.
HENDERSON: Well, I think that he showed his context, and I think that it's important. Today, having a black president made a difference because he could speak from a context and a content that is not like any other on what's...
CORNISH: And interestingly enough, when he starts, he says, you know, he says, I just want to talk a little bit about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling. It sounds as though he's being a translator of this experience.
HENDERSON: Oh, without a doubt he is, without a doubt. He is explaining to America, you know, why this Trayvon Martin verdict has been so painful and still right now. People are unsettled and uncomfortable with what happened and still unsure about how to respond.
CORNISH: And he essentially doubles down on a comment that he had been criticized for. You know, last year, he said, you know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon, and today he went very much farther than that, right?
HENDERSON: Oh, without a doubt. And I think that, in some cases, he has been forced to try to ignore color, just stay in the middle ground. But when he said that 35 years ago that he could be Trayvon, that is such a powerful image. He also said, which I thought was really strong, where he talks about had Trayvon been older and had a gun, would he have been able to come under the same kind of review? Would justice have looked at him the same way?
CORNISH: And he goes on, actually, later on to question Stand Your Ground laws and say that it might be time that people might want to examine these kinds of laws.
OBAMA: 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? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.
HENDERSON: I mean, that - once again, that's the question that a lot of people are asking. And not to mention his other point about spending some time thinking about how to bolster and reinforce African-American voice. To hear the president say that, you know, that he's not sure whether it's a federal program, but we've got to do something in this country to support that segment of the community, that is significant, coming from the president of the United States.
CORNISH: In the end, you know, when we first got you on the line here, you sounded shocked, frankly, complete - I mean, really shocked.
HENDERSON: Well, yeah, because, you know, we're so used - we're so accustomed to President Barack Obama having to be, you know, politically correct in a lot of ways, you know? He's the president of all people in the United States. And so sometimes it is hard for him to be able to just connect with a certain segment without everyone else criticizing him or using it as racial or political division to vote against something else, to say, see, he's not one of us.
Anytime he points to something that relates to African-Americans, sometimes it's - while he's connecting with our community, he's disconnecting with the larger community. So, normally, I'm - we're accustomed, I think, to hearing that sort of middle of the ground. But today, he stepped over and said, look, you know, not only do I understand the pain. I've experienced the pain, that I've talked to my black children, my African-American children, about the pain. I've seen how they've grown through it. I see that it's different.
And then he asked some questions, which I thought was also challenging and personally challenging to all of America. He said, on the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there's a possibility that people are a little bit more honest. And at least you could ask yourself your own questions about am I wrangling as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can based not on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character?
That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy. He's asking you to look in the mirror, and I think that is also a very, very monumental demand or request from the president of the United States.
CORNISH: Angelo Henderson, thank you so much for speaking with us.
HENDERSON: Thank you for having me.
CORNISH: Angelo Henderson, he's the host of "Your Voice with Angelo Henderson," a daily program on Radio One Detroit. He spoke to us from our member station, WDET.
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