President Obama took to the White House briefing room last Friday to explain why Trayvon Martin's death and the subsequent trial of George Zimmerman are fuel for a discussion on race in America. It was seen as a historic moment for the country's first black president, and more so coming from a president who rarely weighs in on racial issues.
His point was simple: Historical context—and personal experience—make salient the larger racial issues surrounding the killing, even if the trial of the accused killer was fair. Obama gave examples from his own life.
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....
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....
And 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.
Inescapable is a strong word, but as polling from Pew reveals, the president was pretty much spot-on in his assessment. Seventy-eight percent of black respondents agreed with the statement that the George Zimmerman verdict "raises important issues about race that need to be discussed." Just 28 percent of white respondents reported the same feeling.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll also found a large gap in sentiment between white and black Americans in the wake of the Zimmerman trial. The most extreme split comes in response to the question, "Do you think blacks and other minorities receive equal treatment as whites in the criminal-justice system or not?" While 54 percent of whites say everyone gets equal treatment, only 3 percent of blacks report the same. That's well within the 11-point margin of error the Post reports for its black respondents, which could mean effectively zero black people would agree to the idea that "equal justice for all" works in practice.
A takeaway point of Obama's speech is that experience and history inform opinion. This polling data show that white and black people, in this regard, share little common ground.