Meet the Press   |  July 21, 2013

Roundtable on race: Obama's 'could have been me' speech on Trayvon

A Meet the Press roundtable discusses the Friday speech by President Barack Obama comparing himself to Trayvon Martin.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> after the not guilty verdict for george zimmerman, justice for trayvon rallies held outside federal buildings yesterday in 100 u.s. cities including new york, here in washington, chicago, los angeles , and dallas. the message of rally organizers, trayvon's death should focus more attention on race, crime and justice in america. and that's where we begin this morning. we've got a special group assembled to talk about this issue, particularly after the president's remarks on friday afternoon. joining me, democratic congresswoman and chair of the congressional black caucus , marcia fudge of ohio. former chair of the republican national committee , now msnbc analyst, michael steele . harvard law professor who taught both barack and michelle obama at harvard, charles ogletree . author and pbs host tavis smiley and president and ceo of national urban league , marc morial . welcome to all of you.

>> thank you.

>> what a unique moment friday was for this presidency, for any presidency, and congresswoman, i want to start with you. describe the impact of the president coming out at the white house , speaking about race in such a personal and frankly off-the-cuff way.

>> i was very proud, quite frankly . i think that it was timely, but more importantly, i think that he could feel the anger that was going around across this country, and he felt that he needed to respond in a way that i think took a lot of courage. for him to basically say that we have a situation where a young man is basically convicted of his own murder, that someone can hunt you down and then say, i'm afraid and kill you. he made it clear that trayvon martin had rights as well. and he made it clear as well that african-american men, for history, for a very long time, have had to deal with this problem.

>> you know, as i talk to people inside the white house , there was a sense that he wanted to provide context for this debate. and i think it's important for people who may have missed the comments to hear a little bit more from the president on friday, again, comparing himself to trayvon martin. i want to show a portion of that.

>> 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. 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.

>> a history that doesn't go away. and yet tavis smiley , you were critical of the president. you said on twitter, his comments were as weak as pre-sweetened kool-aid. he took too long to show up and express outrage.

>> i appreciate and applaud the fact that the president did finally show up. but this town has been spinning a story that's not altogether true. he did not walk to the podium for an impromptu address to the nation. he was pushed to that podium. a week of protests outside the white house , pressure building on him inside the white house pushed him to that podium. so i'm glad he finally arrived. but when he left the podium, he still had not answered the most important question, that keynesian question, where do we go from here? that question this morning remains unanswered, at least from the perspective of the president. and the bottom line is, this is not libya. this is america. on this issue, you cannot lead from behind. what's lacking in this moment is moral leadership. the country is begging for it. they're craving it. and i disagree with the president respectfully that politicians, elected officials, can't occupy this space on race. lincoln did, truman did, johnson did, president obama did. he's the right person in the right place at the right time, but he has to step into his moment. i don't want him to be like bill clinton , when he's out of office, regretting that he didn't move on rwanda. i don't want the president to look back and realize he didn't do as much as he could have in this critical moment .

>> to tavis's point, professor, there has been criticism, it's been building through the week. there was an article in "the washington post " that he had imposed himself in the silence about race. and she wrote this. "during this period of self-imposed silence, we have watched our criminal laws become radicalized, our race criminalized. blacks continue to be faced with punishing unfairness and inequalities. soaring rates of unemployment, discriminatory drug laws , disproportionate prison sentences, unhealthy food, unfair stop and frisk policies and unarmed shootings of unarmed men by the police. these are treated with more indifference or contempt. we're told to stop complaining or no one cares. tav tavis's argument.

>> i disagree with tavis in a profound way. president obama has been talking about race and doing things about race in for a long time. and the reality is that he walked to the podium. he wasn't pushed to the podium. he walked to the podium. he's been trying to have this conversation. and this was the event in the criminal justice system that pushed him over the level. what he said about trayvon is a continuation about what he said when he was shot. he said in 2012 . i think he said -- his whole statement, he said let's have a conversation on race. let's talk about we made some progress as a society, but we still have a long way to go. and i think that what he said and what he did and what he represents to us is a sense, people keep making him as if he's the black president . he's the president who happens to be black. and he can do whatever he can do for all of us, but not simply focus on one community or one issue.

>> david, what the president did is open the door to begin a conversation. one speech can't outline every single action step that needs to be taken. and i think the president agonized. it's not difficult to be a carry the burdens of history in a nation with so much history. but what he did, i think, is start the process and sort of sanction, if you will, the need for there to be a discussion and action steps. and i expect that there will be more because one thing is certain. the emotional court and the response, the vigils on yesterday, the civil rights continuation march on august 24th , the urban league conference that will take place this week in philadelphia, this conversation at the grass-roots level, at the community level, within boardrooms and suites also has just begun. and i think what i hope it leads to and what i hope we will see is not only a discussion that started and ends quickly, but a discussion that will lead to serious action steps by the nation.