President Barack Obama directly addresses race in the US rarely, but with extraordinary power and unique moral authority, so his unannounced appearance in the White House briefing room to discuss the killing of Trayvon Martin was particularly significant
Though Obama made a measured written statement on the case when George Zimmerman was found not guilty, last time he substantively addressed the issue his words of sympathy for Trayvon's parents provoked howls of outrage from conservative critics. Some of them accused him of racism for identifying with the black boy shot dead 18 months ago by Zimmerman, a Hispanic neighbourhood watch volunteer.
President Barack Obama speaks to reporters at the White House. Photo: AP
“When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids, and I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this, and that everybody pulls together—federal, state, and local—to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened …” he said back then.
“But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon.”
He did not back away from those words on Friday, but so far his personal, sombre and unscripted address appears to have soothed rather than inflamed tensions that are running high 24 hours before planned nationwide rallies.
For the first time as President he sought to explain in some detail the black perspective to a broad American audience from his own experience.
“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,” he said.
“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 recognise that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away.
“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.
“There are probably very few African-American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me - at least before I was a senator.
“There are very few African-Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.
“And you know, I don't want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it's inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.”
Obama noted that the black American community was painfully aware that historically criminal laws have not been applied fairly across the races, but acknowledged that young black Americans were disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violent crime in America.
“I think the African-American community is also not naive in understanding that statistically somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else.”
After a week of tension since the acquittal last Saturday night, the President said he understood the protests and the vigils, but said any violence during rallies would dishonour Trayvon and his family.
On a practical level, he stated clearly that criminal law was the responsibility of state and local governments rather than the federal government. This was perhaps an effort to dampen the expectations of protesters.
But he suggested those jurisdictions could benefit from better training on race issues and the introduction of laws that helped curtail, or at least reveal the extent of, racial profiling.
Crucially he applied his lawyer's mind to the evident contradictions and dangers of Florida-style muscular self-defence and “stand your ground” laws, laws that have spread to 30 states across the union.
“If we're sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there's a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we'd like to see?
“And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these 'stand your ground' laws, I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?”
Perhaps in a quiet criticism of President Bill Clinton's “national conversation on race”, instituted in 1996, Obama said he did not believe politicians could usefully lead such discussions. “They end up being stilted and politicised, and folks are locked into the positions they already have,” he said.
But echoing his far more formal and scholarly address on race of 2008 - a speech that is already seen as one of the great examples of American political rhetoric - the President ended his unscripted address on a note of hope.
“And let me just leave you with a final thought, that as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don't want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race.
“It doesn't mean that we're in a post-racial society. It doesn't mean that racism is eliminated. But you know, when I talk to [his daughters] Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they're better than we are. They're better than we were on these issues. And that's true in every community that I've visited all across the country.
“We should also have confidence that kids these days I think have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did, and that along this long, difficult journey, you know, we're becoming a more perfect union – not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.”