Skip to main content

How Obama's comments on race sparked very different reactions

By Bryan Monroe, CNN
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Sat July 20, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Head of group protesting Florida law praises president for "bravery" of remarks
  • Obama made surprise comments on the George Zimmerman verdict
  • Reactions, however, varied wildly and were polarized
  • "So much for this president 'transcending' race," says one conservative commentator

Washington (CNN) -- In some of the most personal and unscripted comments on race of his presidency, President Barack Obama broke his silence Friday with surprise remarks from the White House on Trayvon Martin, his first public comments since a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the teenager's shooting death.

"You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son," said Obama, who entered the White House briefing room Friday afternoon without notes or a teleprompter. "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."

But across the country, different audiences appear to have heard very different things in Obama's remarks.

From social media to comments on the Web to on-air discussions, Obama's remarks were seen as both "a truly historic moment" and simultaneously said to have been "fanning the flames of racism."

Obama: Trayvon Martin could have been me
Cory Booker: Obama spoke from the heart
Obama speaks out on Zimmerman verdict

"So much for this president 'transcending' race," said conservative commentator Tara Setmayer on her Facebook feed. "Obama's comments as President of the United States today were quite provocative and racially inflammatory."

Robert Camacho had just the opposite feeling, commenting on CNN.com. "Thank you Mr. President. I am proud of you taking the first step, is up to ALL of US to stop this."

But Tasha Wells shot back on Facebook: "STOP RACE BAITING!!!!! He is not guilty. Stop this mad witch hunt!"

CNN senior political analyst Gloria Borger focused on the tone Obama took, saying that the president was speaking from the heart, "not using a teleprompter, like we very often see this president using. The words that come to mind are heartfelt," she said. "Very sober about this. Talking about how African-Americans look at this case through a history that doesn't go away."

Phillip Agnew, executive director of Dream Defenders, an activist group that promotes nonviolent social change and has been protesting Florida's "stand your ground" law, told CNN that he was encouraged Obama "was speaking about the issues in the way we are speaking about the issues."

"I hope he follows that up with action ... in any way that he can," Agnew said.

Agnew praised the president for "lending his voice to the situation" and "showing some bravery and showing some leadership at the top." He added that "we're hoping other leaders, including our governor, follow suit."

Gov. Rick Scott met overnight Friday with Dream Defenders protesters staging a sit-in at the governor's office and defended his position not to amend the controversial law. The protesters said they will continue their sit-in until their demand is met.

Obama last dealt with themes of race head-on as a presidential candidate in 2008, when he talked about his own struggles with race during a speech at Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

"At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me either 'too black' or 'not black enough,'" he said then.

Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and former head of the Democratic National Committee, responded on Twitter to Obama's comment that he didn't see a need for politicians to lead a national discussion on race.

Responding to Obama's comment that he didn't "think it's particularly productive when politicians try to convene discussions" on race, she tweeted "Agree with #POTUS."

Ben Ferguson, a conservative commentator and CNN political contributor, was surprised that Obama even addressed the issue of race.

"I'm shocked because he said he was going to be the president for everyone, and obviously today he said I'm going to be the president for just the African-American community, and everyone else better listen up," said Ferguson. "The president's job is to be president for everyone. He basically said to everyone protesting that the system is broken for African-Americans. You have a right to be angry about this."

Both others pushed back.

"This isn't something that Black men make up or want to happen," said CNN's Don Lemon. "If you have the most powerful African-American man in the world telling you that there is a problem -- there's nothing in this politically for him -- perhaps people like Ben Ferguson ... should listen, should sleep on it, before they react and deny the context of what could have happen to Trayvon Martin and what could be, what is happening to most African-American men in this country."

According to a recent Gallup poll released before the Zimmerman verdict, 52% of African-American are dissatisfied about how blacks are treated by society, while 47% say they are satisfied.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
George Zimmerman
updated 8:50 PM EST, Wed February 5, 2014
Let's get ready to ... mumble.
updated 8:35 PM EST, Fri January 24, 2014
George Zimmerman, who sold his first painting on eBay for a whopping $100,000, is at it again.
updated 2:41 PM EDT, Sun September 29, 2013
George Zimmerman's estranged wife said that while she respects the jury's not guilty verdict in his second-degree murder trial, she now has doubts about his innocence.
updated 1:11 PM EDT, Sun July 28, 2013
George Zimmerman's defense team says people should delve into the "substance" of other comments made by a juror who claimed the man who killed Trayvon Martin "got away with murder."
updated 1:12 PM EDT, Sun July 28, 2013
A juror in the George Zimmerman trial says she feels the man who killed Trayvon Martin "got away with murder."
updated 3:52 PM EDT, Wed July 24, 2013
Four days after he was acquitted of murder, George Zimmerman stepped out of seclusion to help a family.
updated 1:09 PM EDT, Sun July 28, 2013
Florida law kept George Zimmerman from being held accountable in last year's shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, the teen's mom said.
updated 10:10 PM EDT, Wed July 24, 2013
Vowing to keep fighting for his son Trayvon -- even after Zimmerman was acquitted of murder -- Tracy Martin said that his family wants to turn "negative energy" surrounding their plight "into a positive."
updated 12:54 PM EDT, Sat July 20, 2013
The nation has a long history of self-defense laws. Almost every state allows some version of the "castle" defense, as in "a man's home is his castle."
updated 12:43 AM EDT, Thu July 18, 2013
The woman known as Juror B37 in the George Zimmerman trial released a statement exclusively to CNN pushing for new laws.
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Tue July 16, 2013
One of the jurors who acquitted George Zimmerman said she had "no doubt" he feared for his life in the final moments of his struggle with Trayvon Martin.
updated 8:54 AM EDT, Wed July 17, 2013
George Zimmerman "didn't do anything unlawful" and was "justified" in shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, according to one of the jurors who acquitted Zimmerman.
updated 1:04 AM EDT, Wed July 17, 2013
The friend who was on the phone with Trayvon Martin when his fatal confrontation with Zimmerman said she is upset at his acquittal on murder charges.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Tue July 16, 2013
His trial's over. And now it turns out that George Zimmerman might need the same thing millions of Americans are looking for: a job.
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Mon July 15, 2013
An employee of the Florida State Attorney's Office who testified that prosecutors withheld evidence from George Zimmerman's defense team has been fired.
updated 10:02 AM EDT, Mon July 15, 2013
This might sound like a legal conundrum.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon July 15, 2013
Suspected racism in the justice system, deep-seated, secretive and historic, was the crux of the case for millions, writes Tom Foreman.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Fri March 30, 2012
Just like most any other teenager, Trayvon Martin enjoyed listening to music and going to the movies, friends and family said.
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Tue July 2, 2013
With a single phrase, Rachel Jeantel, that friend of Trayvon Martin's, may have lit a fuse in the trial of his accused killer.
ADVERTISEMENT