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 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT