WASHINGTON – In a rare and public reflection on race, President Barack Obama called on the nation Friday to do some soul searching over the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his shooter, saying the slain black teenager “could have been me 35 years ago.” Empathizing with the pain of many black Americans, Obama said the case conjured up a hard history of racial injustice “that doesn’t go away.”
Obama’s personal comments, in a surprise appearance in the White House press room, marked his most extensive discussion of race as president. For Obama, who has written about his own struggles with racial identity but often has shied away from the subject in office, the speech signaled an unusual embrace of his standing as the nation’s first black president and the longing of many African-Americans for him to give voice to their experiences.
“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,” Obama said during his 20-minute remarks.
A Florida jury last week acquitted George Zimmerman of all charges in the February 2012 shooting of Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old. The verdict was cheered by those who agreed that Zimmerman was acting in self-defense, while others protested the outcome, believing Zimmerman had targeted Martin because he was black.
Despite his emotional comments on the case, the president appeared to signal that the Justice Department was unlikely to file federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman. Traditionally, he said, “these are issues of state and local government,” and he warned that the public should have “clear expectations.”
After the verdict, some civil rights leaders called on Obama to lead a national conversation on race. But the president has resisted. Before Friday, his only comment on the verdict had been a written statement in which he called Martin’s death a tragedy and appealed for calm.
Throughout the week, the president kept track of the national response to the verdict, particularly by black Americans, and had discussions with his family, aides said.
On Thursday, he told his senior advisers that he felt the country needed to hear from him – not in an interview or speech, just a frank discussion of his views and experiences. He spoke from the podium in the White House briefing room with no notes.
Even as the president urged the public to accept the verdict – “once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works” – he gave voice to the feelings held by many angered by the jury’s decisions.
There’s a sense, Obama said, “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.”
The president spoke emotionally about Martin’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, saying they had displayed incredible grace and dignity. He never mentioned the feelings of Zimmerman, whose brother has said the former defendant has faced numerous death threats.
Martin’s parents released a statement following the remarks, saying, “President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him. This is a beautiful tribute to our boy.”
Zimmerman’s brother, Robert, also welcomed the president’s remarks, telling Fox News that “the American people need to have some time to digest what really happened and to do that soul searching the president spoke of.”
Despite that fact that Obama’s race has been central to the narrative of his political rise, he has rarely addressed the matter as a public figure. He last spoke about race in a substantial way as a presidential candidate in 2008 in addressing criticism over incendiary comments made by his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
In 2009, Obama stumbled when commenting on the arrest of a black Harvard professor in the professor’s home, saying the police “acted stupidly.” The president was forced to retract his statement, then held an awkward “beer summit” at the White House with the professor, Henry Louis Gates, and the white arresting officer.
But on Friday, Obama spoke poignantly about the distrust that shadows many African-American men, saying that they can draw nervous stares on elevators and hear car locks clicking when they walk down the street.
“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,” he said. “That includes me.”
In a departure from his typical caution on legal matters, the president also waded into the thorny debates on racial profiling and Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, despite the fact that neither was formally raised during Zimmerman’s trial.
Obama said it would be useful “to examine some state and local laws to see if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of confrontation” that led to Martin’s death. He questioned whether a law that sends the message that someone who is armed “has the right to use those firearms even if there is a way for them to exit from a situation” really promotes peace and security.
And he raised the provocative question of whether Martin himself, if he had been armed and of age, “could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk” and shot Zimmerman if he felt threatened when being followed.
Seeking to inject a sense of hope into his otherwise somber remarks, the president said race relations in the United States have improved with each passing generation. He said his young daughters and their friends are “better than we were.”
“We’re becoming a more perfect union,” he said. “Not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.”