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Obama's Remarks On Trayvon Martin 'Pointed' And 'Personal'

Jul 20, 2013
Originally published on July 20, 2013 2:48 pm
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Charles Ogletree is a professor of law at Harvard and the director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at the law school there. Ogletree was a senior advisor to President Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign. I asked him about his first reaction to what the president said.

CHARLES OGLETREE: It was the most refreshing, startling and amazing comment I've ever heard him make in the 25 years I've known him on the issue of race; very poignant, very personal and very much, I think, a rallying cry for African-Americans and a point of contention for those who really resent the fact that he's bringing race into this equation.

WERTHEIMER: Is this a different President Obama than we saw in 2009 when he spoke out about the incident with Henry Louis Gates?

OGLETREE: It's very different. I'm writing a book on President Obama called "Understanding Obama," 'cause I think I've known him longer than any of the folks who've written about him. And I have to tell you that I have been doing a lot of research and planning on this book and the last thing I was going to say was that he's been very modest when it comes to talking about issues of race. He's talked about other ethnic groups and other issues but not about African-Americans. This has changed my whole direction of the book and changed my whole view about President Obama. I have to say, I'm in a sense turning cartwheels in hearing him address race so candidly, and yet I hope it is the beginning, not the end, of his discussion about a very, very much controversial issue throughout America and actually throughout the world.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that by calling for a hard look at the Stand Your Ground laws, talking about would Trayvon Martin have been entitled to the protection of Stand Your Ground if he had had a gun and felt himself to be endangered? The president said if that's at least ambiguous, we need to at least rethink these things.

OGLETREE: Well, you know, it's interesting. I've been following this stuff for decades, in terms of what can or should a president or a leader say. I remember my president of Harvard University, Larry Summers, got into trouble when he talked about the qualities of women in certain jobs, and that, I think, had an impact on his ultimate resignation as president at Harvard. I heard the reaction of Jerry Ford, of President Bush 1 and Bush 2 in talking about their reactions to the Roe v. Wade decision and how they were against it. And those were views that some people embraced, some people disagreed with.

But here where a president's speaking from the heart - and I think that's exactly what Barack Obama did - and that is that sometimes you may disagree with a public decision, and part of the bully pulpit of the White House is that you can say something about it. I'm glad he used it, I'm glad he talked about race and disparities in the criminal justice system. And I'm glad he talked in a personal way, instead of distancing himself from it, embracing it as the challenge that America faces right now and right today. And I think that made an enormous amount of difference.

WERTHEIMER: What do you think about, I mean, a friend of mine told me that after years after looking at the president who happens to be an African-American, we were looking at an African-American who is president.

OGLETREE: I would say it a little bit differently - and I think that's right on point. We heard a little bit about race when he spoke as the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. We heard a little bit more when he spoke about the Jeremiah Wright issue when he was running for president and people were asking him to disown Jeremiah Wright, which he did not do at that time. And I think that President Barack Obama is a president who happens to be black. I think that's an accurate description and nothing more. And he's not a black president in the sense that he's only there for black people - he's there for all people.

But I think that this has at least started turning the tide halfway through his second term to make people see and embrace President Obama. And he has to do more. He knows it. He has to talk about jobs and look at the unemployment rate of African-Americans. He has to talk about education, the failure of our public education system for a lot of African-American children. He has to talk about immigration and show the same enthusiasm for making sure that people of African descent are treated as they should be, as people of Hispanic descent, of Asian-American descent, as women and men, black and white, yellow, and every other color. And I think he's beginning to do that. And I think we'll see even more of it in the last two years of his service as president.

WERTHEIMER: Charles Ogletree is a professor of law at Harvard Law School. His most recent book is called "The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Race, Class, and Crime in America." Professor Ogletree, thank you very much.

OGLETREE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.