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Obama started a needed conversation

By Mo Elleithee, Special to CNN
July 20, 2013 -- Updated 0009 GMT (0809 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mo Elliethee: Obama offered thoughts on Zimmerman case; shared own experiences
  • He says he was quickly criticized as racially divisive; it's sad how far from truth this is
  • He says Obama was speaking to divisions we all face
  • Elliethee: Not everything has to be a fight. Why not talk about issues?

Editor's note: Mo Elleithee was senior spokesman and traveling press secretary for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in 2008 and has worked for or advised other Democratic candidates and committees. He is a founding partner of two political consulting firms and has served on the faculty of Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute since 2011.

(CNN) -- Friday, President Barack Obama walked into the White House briefing room and gave the American people his thoughts on the Trayvon Martin case.

His comments were striking in their honesty and in their personal nature.

He didn't lecture. He wasn't angry. He was reflective. He spoke about his personal experiences, and the shared experiences of so many others. He called for respect for the process and the verdict, but used the remarks as an opportunity to help others understand why so many people were angry.

He said that 35 ago, "Trayvon Martin could have been me."

Mo Elleithee
Mo Elleithee

He started a national conversation.

And -- in the most predictable and disappointing fashion -- he became a lightning rod for criticism from his political opponents. Within moments of his speech, cable news and Twitter was full of comments from the right questioning the president's motives and words.

He was called divisive. He was accused of fanning the flames of discontent. Some said that by raising this issue, he was not being a president for everyone, just for African-Americans.

Those criticisms could not be more sad. Nor could they be more off base. Because while Obama's comments may have been focused on some of the racial divisions we face as a nation, to me his remarks were about so much more.

They were about all of the divisions we face.

Cory Booker: Obama spoke from the heart
Trayvon Martin's parents talk verdict

There are far too many stereotypes and bigotries that divide us on a daily basis. Far too many people of different backgrounds who feel targeted, mocked, or looked down upon by others.

Obama's comments don't just speak to the young black man who worries he's being followed, or who sees other people look at him with fear. He spoke to the young Sikh-American man who is called a "terrorist" on the street or stared at with fear for wearing a turban publicly.

He spoke to the young Indian-American man, born and raised in this country, who is mocked and called a racial slur and told "welcome to America" by a U.S. senator because his skin color is a little darker.

He spoke to the servicewoman who wears our nation's uniform but finds that the greatest threat might come from male colleagues.

He spoke to the young woman who walks down the street and feels the need to cover up because of all the eyes "checking out" her body.

He spoke to the young Hispanic-American who is assumed to be an illegal immigrant just because of his or her last name.

And yes, he spoke to the white Americans who feel fear that of being robbed when approached by a young black man.

The fact is we do still have divisions in this country based on racism. And sexism. And ageism. And more "isms" than any of us care to admit. So when the president says "Trayvon Martin could have been me," of course that's somewhat about race.

But not entirely.

Those misconceptions about him and the fear Martin felt that night are all too familiar to way too many Americans. Trayvon Martin could have been any of us.

Obama has been the recipient of more than his fair share of attacks. But Friday's were -- for me -- some of the most disappointing I've witnessed since he took office.

Not everything needs to be a fight. We ought to be able to have nonpoliticized conversations about issues that are this important. Sometimes, rather than throw a punch, it might be more productive to just join the conversation.

Friday was one of those days.

And unless we have more conversations like the one the president advocates -- and until we realize it's a conversation that we all are a part of -- we'll won't every fully get to a place where we are finally judged purely on "the content of our character."

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mo Elleithee.

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