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How Obama's comments on race sparked very different reactions

By Bryan Monroe, CNN
July 20, 2013 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
  • NEW: Head of group protesting Florida law praises president for "bravery" of remarks
  • Obama made surprise comments on the George Zimmerman verdict
  • Reactions, however, varied wildly and were polarized
  • "So much for this president 'transcending' race," says one conservative commentator

Washington (CNN) -- In some of the most personal and unscripted comments on race of his presidency, President Barack Obama broke his silence Friday with surprise remarks from the White House on Trayvon Martin, his first public comments since a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the teenager's shooting death.

"You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son," said Obama, who entered the White House briefing room Friday afternoon without notes or a teleprompter. "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."

But across the country, different audiences appear to have heard very different things in Obama's remarks.

From social media to comments on the Web to on-air discussions, Obama's remarks were seen as both "a truly historic moment" and simultaneously said to have been "fanning the flames of racism."

Obama: Trayvon Martin could have been me
Cory Booker: Obama spoke from the heart
Obama speaks out on Zimmerman verdict

"So much for this president 'transcending' race," said conservative commentator Tara Setmayer on her Facebook feed. "Obama's comments as President of the United States today were quite provocative and racially inflammatory."

Robert Camacho had just the opposite feeling, commenting on "Thank you Mr. President. I am proud of you taking the first step, is up to ALL of US to stop this."

But Tasha Wells shot back on Facebook: "STOP RACE BAITING!!!!! He is not guilty. Stop this mad witch hunt!"

CNN senior political analyst Gloria Borger focused on the tone Obama took, saying that the president was speaking from the heart, "not using a teleprompter, like we very often see this president using. The words that come to mind are heartfelt," she said. "Very sober about this. Talking about how African-Americans look at this case through a history that doesn't go away."

Phillip Agnew, executive director of Dream Defenders, an activist group that promotes nonviolent social change and has been protesting Florida's "stand your ground" law, told CNN that he was encouraged Obama "was speaking about the issues in the way we are speaking about the issues."

"I hope he follows that up with action ... in any way that he can," Agnew said.

Agnew praised the president for "lending his voice to the situation" and "showing some bravery and showing some leadership at the top." He added that "we're hoping other leaders, including our governor, follow suit."

Gov. Rick Scott met overnight Friday with Dream Defenders protesters staging a sit-in at the governor's office and defended his position not to amend the controversial law. The protesters said they will continue their sit-in until their demand is met.

Obama last dealt with themes of race head-on as a presidential candidate in 2008, when he talked about his own struggles with race during a speech at Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

"At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me either 'too black' or 'not black enough,'" he said then.

Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and former head of the Democratic National Committee, responded on Twitter to Obama's comment that he didn't see a need for politicians to lead a national discussion on race.

Responding to Obama's comment that he didn't "think it's particularly productive when politicians try to convene discussions" on race, she tweeted "Agree with #POTUS."

Ben Ferguson, a conservative commentator and CNN political contributor, was surprised that Obama even addressed the issue of race.

"I'm shocked because he said he was going to be the president for everyone, and obviously today he said I'm going to be the president for just the African-American community, and everyone else better listen up," said Ferguson. "The president's job is to be president for everyone. He basically said to everyone protesting that the system is broken for African-Americans. You have a right to be angry about this."

Both others pushed back.

"This isn't something that Black men make up or want to happen," said CNN's Don Lemon. "If you have the most powerful African-American man in the world telling you that there is a problem -- there's nothing in this politically for him -- perhaps people like Ben Ferguson ... should listen, should sleep on it, before they react and deny the context of what could have happen to Trayvon Martin and what could be, what is happening to most African-American men in this country."

According to a recent Gallup poll released before the Zimmerman verdict, 52% of African-American are dissatisfied about how blacks are treated by society, while 47% say they are satisfied.

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