Looking at Trayvon Martin, Listening to Barack Obama

“Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago.” With that, President Barack Obama rejoined the national conversation on race for which he is often a subject and rarely a participant. The discussion is sometimes a shoutfest, sometimes a whisper, but it never lacks for irony: Our first black president seems reluctant to be party to it in some measure because his fiercest critics are forever accusing him of butting in.

It doesn’t take an inordinate amount of empathy to understand why many Americans are upset about the killing of Trayvon Martin, and why black Americans might be especially unnerved. Martin could have been a lot of people 35 years ago. And it requires no discounting of our nation’s admirable progress to acknowledge that he wasn’t killed then, but now, and that the presence of a black family in the White House offered no shield to a black teenage boy.

“It’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a -- and a history that -- that doesn’t go away,” Obama said. “There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.”

The outrage stems not only from past experience but also from the suspicion that had Martin been white, and had George Zimmerman -- the man who fired the shot -- been black, the case’s outcome might have been different.

We will never know. We do know that although the nation is headed unwaveringly in the right direction, the steady retreat of racial enmity, suspicion and unease will take some time before it is completed. What we have in the meantime are ever-stronger social norms and the decency we can offer one another. The president’s calm and heartfelt words bolster them both.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.