Skip to main content

Obama started a needed conversation

By Mo Elleithee, Special to CNN
updated 8:09 PM EDT, Fri July 19, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mo Elliethee: Obama offered thoughts on Zimmerman case; shared own experiences
  • He says he was quickly criticized as racially divisive; it's sad how far from truth this is
  • He says Obama was speaking to divisions we all face
  • Elliethee: Not everything has to be a fight. Why not talk about issues?

Editor's note: Mo Elleithee was senior spokesman and traveling press secretary for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in 2008 and has worked for or advised other Democratic candidates and committees. He is a founding partner of two political consulting firms and has served on the faculty of Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute since 2011.

(CNN) -- Friday, President Barack Obama walked into the White House briefing room and gave the American people his thoughts on the Trayvon Martin case.

His comments were striking in their honesty and in their personal nature.

He didn't lecture. He wasn't angry. He was reflective. He spoke about his personal experiences, and the shared experiences of so many others. He called for respect for the process and the verdict, but used the remarks as an opportunity to help others understand why so many people were angry.

He said that 35 ago, "Trayvon Martin could have been me."

Mo Elleithee
Mo Elleithee

He started a national conversation.

And -- in the most predictable and disappointing fashion -- he became a lightning rod for criticism from his political opponents. Within moments of his speech, cable news and Twitter was full of comments from the right questioning the president's motives and words.

He was called divisive. He was accused of fanning the flames of discontent. Some said that by raising this issue, he was not being a president for everyone, just for African-Americans.

Those criticisms could not be more sad. Nor could they be more off base. Because while Obama's comments may have been focused on some of the racial divisions we face as a nation, to me his remarks were about so much more.

They were about all of the divisions we face.

Cory Booker: Obama spoke from the heart
Trayvon Martin's parents talk verdict

There are far too many stereotypes and bigotries that divide us on a daily basis. Far too many people of different backgrounds who feel targeted, mocked, or looked down upon by others.

Obama's comments don't just speak to the young black man who worries he's being followed, or who sees other people look at him with fear. He spoke to the young Sikh-American man who is called a "terrorist" on the street or stared at with fear for wearing a turban publicly.

He spoke to the young Indian-American man, born and raised in this country, who is mocked and called a racial slur and told "welcome to America" by a U.S. senator because his skin color is a little darker.

He spoke to the servicewoman who wears our nation's uniform but finds that the greatest threat might come from male colleagues.

He spoke to the young woman who walks down the street and feels the need to cover up because of all the eyes "checking out" her body.

He spoke to the young Hispanic-American who is assumed to be an illegal immigrant just because of his or her last name.

And yes, he spoke to the white Americans who feel fear that of being robbed when approached by a young black man.

The fact is we do still have divisions in this country based on racism. And sexism. And ageism. And more "isms" than any of us care to admit. So when the president says "Trayvon Martin could have been me," of course that's somewhat about race.

But not entirely.

Those misconceptions about him and the fear Martin felt that night are all too familiar to way too many Americans. Trayvon Martin could have been any of us.

Obama has been the recipient of more than his fair share of attacks. But Friday's were -- for me -- some of the most disappointing I've witnessed since he took office.

Not everything needs to be a fight. We ought to be able to have nonpoliticized conversations about issues that are this important. Sometimes, rather than throw a punch, it might be more productive to just join the conversation.

Friday was one of those days.

And unless we have more conversations like the one the president advocates -- and until we realize it's a conversation that we all are a part of -- we'll won't every fully get to a place where we are finally judged purely on "the content of our character."

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mo Elleithee.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 12:17 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 6:31 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT