"You know, 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," Obama said. "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."
That may be the most important thing the president said. History helps explain the pervasiveness of the nation's racial divide. The gap has grown smaller, but it seems destined to persist so long as people think they can wish it out existence.
It would be great if the slate of history could be wiped clean, or if, by edict, life in this country could be declared free and clear of all vestiges of slavery and segregation. But as much as we may want that to be true, it isn't.
Obama said few African American men, including himself, "haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping." He made the critical link between racial profiling and the fact that "African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system."
Obama could have linked crime to poverty and bad schools, which also disproportionately affect African Americans. Little has changed in that regard since W.E.B. DuBois, writing in The Philadelphia Negro 114 years ago, cited poverty and illiteracy as exacerbating crime among black people.
Today, people who never experienced slavery or segregation can feel their impact. That may be hard to believe under a black president. But his achievements only extend so far. Disparities rooted in discrimination provide the context of the outrage over the Zimmerman verdict. Obama stated the truth because he wants the nation to overcome it, not to be further divided.