WASHINGTON — President Obama spoke in deeply personal and revealing terms about the nation’s racial divides on Friday afternoon, moved by the acquittal and resulting controversy in the Trayvon Martin murder case to comment publicly on a subject he had conspicuously avoided during his first term as president.
Speaking without notes or a teleprompter in a surprise appearance in the White House press room, the president highlighted what he called the lingering racial tensions in American life and called on citizens to do some “soul-searching’’ about their attitudes.
“Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Obama said. “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.”
It was a remarkable commentary by the nation’s first black president, giving his most extensive remarks on race, on the nation’s racial history, about the incarceration rate of young black males, and about controversial “Stand Your Ground” laws.
He explained his own experiences with bias and racial profiling, and sought to explain to the nation why the black community was so outraged over a Florida jury’s decision to acquit George Zimmerman last week in Martin’s killing.
‘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.’ ‘Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.’
“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,’’ the president said. “There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.’’
Zimmerman was found not guilty Saturday of killing Martin in February 2012 during a confrontation in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, said he was trying to protect his neighbors from a perceived threat when he saw Martin, who was walking nearby wearing a black hooded sweatshirt.
Zimmerman followed the teenager. And then, during an altercation between the two, he fired shots that killed Martin, who was unarmed and carrying little more than a packet of Skittles. Zimmerman said afterwards he fired because he felt his life was at risk. Stand Your Ground laws vary by state, but generally allow a victim to fight back if they feel threatened.
Obama had expressed an interest in the case from the beginning. Shortly after the incident gained national attention, he remarked from the White House Rose Garden that, had he had a son, he would have looked like Martin.
On Sunday, the day after the verdict, Obama issued a written statement, and he continued talking about it in the following days with friends and family, according to a White House official.
On Thursday, the president told his senior staff he wanted to speak out publicly. Not in a television interview or a speech, but simply speaking “from the heart” before the cameras. So he entered the White House briefing room when reporters were awaiting press secretary Jay Carney on a sleepy Friday afternoon.
Obama said the black community is “not naive” and realizes “that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence.” They also realize that statistically, Martin was more likely to be shot by a black peer than anyone else.
But the African-American community is frustrated, Obama said, by being painted with such a broad brush.
“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,” he said.
Obama has spoken about race previously. In 2008, under criticism for the comments of his pastor Jeremiah Wright, he gave a speech in Philadelphia addressing the topic. A few months after being elected, he commented at a White House press conference that police in Cambridge, Mass., “acted stupidly” when they arrested Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., who had broken into his own home.
Obama later apologized for his comments and invited both Gates and Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley to the White House for a “beer summit.”
But his comments on Friday were far more personal and extensive than his previous statements on race since he was elected.
“This is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, statement that I’ve seen him make, at all, in the more than quarter of a century of knowing him,” said Charles J. Ogletree, who was Obama’s professor at Harvard Law School. “This will go down as one of his most dramatic, comprehensive, and perhaps even controversial statements on race that we have seen him make in his entire career.”
Obama’s comments were praised by both the Zimmerman and Martin families.
“President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him. This is a beautiful tribute to our boy,” Martin’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, said in a statement.
Robert Zimmerman Jr., the brother of the man who was acquitted in Martin’s killing, said on Fox News that he was glad Obama spoke out about the case.
“I think the president was speaking off the cuff, and I think he was very sincere in his remarks,” Robert Zimmerman said. “My concern is that . . . we do everything we can for children who are having difficulties — and I really see eye to eye with the president on that — difficulties in life.”
Obama spoke quietly at times, with long silent pauses punctuating his 19 minutes at the podium. He did not take questions.
He called for a review of the Stand Your Ground laws, which have been implemented in more than 20 states.
“For those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these ‘Stand your Ground’ laws, I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?” Obama said . “And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?”
As he ended his remarks, Obama referenced his two daughters, saying their generation is better adept at handling racial issues.
“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,” Obama said. “And along this long journey, we’re becoming a more perfect union. Not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.