07/21/2013 02:15 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2013

Obama's Trayvon Speech Accomplished Exactly What He Set Out To Do

In remarks Friday afternoon, President Obama spoke about Trayvon Martin's killing, the acquittal of George Zimmerman and, above all, why African Americans reacted the way they did.

This last point is where I'd like to focus. The president wasn't just expressing the feelings of the black community, or his own personal feelings. He was educating the rest of America about the roots of these feelings, about the how they have been shaped by the experiences of black Americans. What he offered was not a catharsis, but in fact an education. My initial reaction is that, in this regard, President Obama achieved real success.

Obama started out by relating the experience of being treated like a potential criminal, of being profiled, of seeing fear in other people's eyes when they came in contact with him, simply because he is a black man. He also discussed the reality of racial disparities in our criminal justice system.

The president then shifted gears. As in his 2008 Philadelphia race speech, he showed that he understood how those who we might call "skeptical but reachable" non-blacks might be thinking about these matters. Just before this gear shift, I could almost hear in my head the voice of people I know saying:

"But wait a minute, what about the fact that young black men commit so much violent crime. And, and, that most victims of the violent crimes they commit are other black people. When's he gonna talk about that, huh? Is he just going to say blacks are victims and that's all?"

But shift gears Obama did. He acknowledged exactly those things. Why does that matter? Because it ensured that a decent chunk of those skeptical but reachable folks kept on listening rather than dismissed him as one-sided or "radical." It helped them be willing to absorb the first part of his message, the part before the gear shift, as well as another message he embedded in his section acknowledging the crime and violence in poor black neighborhoods, namely that "some of [that] violence... is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history."

The president then moved deeper. Again shifting gears, he reminded his non-black audience that he gets their perspective: "I think the African American community is also not naïve in understanding that, statistically, somebody like Trayvon Martin was statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else." This is music to the "skeptical but reachable" people's ears. Their ears, and maybe even their hearts, are now open to what he's going to say next.

So folks understand the challenges that exist for African American boys. But they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there's no context for it and that context is being denied. And that all contributes I think to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.

This is the whole ball game, right here. Obama's goal was to get non-black people to put themselves in the shoes of the black community, to feel some kind of empathy and gain some kind of understanding of their perspective. To do that, Obama first showed he understood the perspective of the people he was trying to reach, a necessary move in order to gain their trust and the possibility of gaining their empathy. And for those he did reach, Obama hopes he can then convince them to join him in taking the actions he recommended.

The president spoke about reducing racial profiling, and asked people to consider changing "Stand Your Ground" laws. He also called for us, as a society, to figure out ways to "bolster and reinforce" young black men and boys. Obama called on all of us to ask ourselves: "am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy."

Here we see the president asking all of us, but in particular non-blacks, to do a better job treating one another equally, without bias. Rather than rain down blow after indignant blow in a way that he obviously believes would alienate rather than win support, he built slowly to this point, shifting gears as I described, and preparing his audience to hear the message that, yes, they do need to change, they do need to treat young black men and boys more fairly, and that we do need to reform a criminal justice system that discriminates against them systematically.

And then, in a final gear shift, he closed on a broader note, one consistent with the historical narrative of America and race he has been presenting for two decades, one designed to help encourage his target audience to accept the message he has just delivered. It is a narrative of hope and struggle, progress and admonition that we aren't yet finished progressing.

And let me just leave you with a final thought that, as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don't want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn't mean we're in a post-racial society. It doesn't mean that racism is eliminated. But when I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I seem them interact, they're better than we are -- they're better than we were -- on these issues. And that's true in every community that I've visited all across the country.

And so we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues. And those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature, as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions. But we should also have confidence that kids these days, I think, have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did; and that along this long, difficult journey, we're becoming a more perfect union -- not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.

Now, let's be clear about something. I've been talking about the "skeptical but reachable" people, but there are large numbers of unreachable people, and we've already heard from plenty of them since Friday afternoon. This speech will not reach them, nor was it aimed at them. Neither was it aimed primarily at those who already agree with him on these matters, although I hope that black Americans can take comfort from hearing him voice the perspective he offered from behind the presidential seal.

Obama has long written and spoken about fighting racism and increasing ties across ethnic lines, but he believes that we do so by reaching people who can be reached, and helping them move a step or two in the right direction. These moves, these steps can create a virtuous cycle, as the people who move come to have more positive interactions with those of other races, helping further strengthen cross-ethnic ties. Additionally, the people who move a step or two hopefully have children who move even more, and so on.

The president isn't under the illusion that a speech will move millions of people from hard-core bigotry to a full embrace of cross-ethnic brotherhood. There's no way, of course, to measure it, but this speech -- as part of the larger body of Barack Obama's public rhetoric -- will have an impact, will increase empathy and reduce bigotry. The impact may be slow in gestating, but it will ultimately be profound.