In some of his most extensive comments on U.S. race relations since entering the White House, President Obama on Friday gave a very personal perspective of the shooting of 17-year-old African-American Trayvon Martin and the subsequent trial of George Zimmerman, offering an explanation for why the case has created so much anxiety within the African-American community.
“When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said this could’ve been my son. Another way of saying that is, Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Mr. Obama said in an unexpected appearance in the White House briefing room, where reporters were gathered to question White House spokesman Jay Carney. (Watch his full remarks in the video above)
“When you think about why in the African-American community, at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, it’s important to recognize the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and history that doesn’t go away.”
After a Florida jury on Saturday acquitted Zimmerman of murder, Mr. Obama gave a decidedly muted response, noting that the Justice Department was reviewing the case. Some civil rights leaders called for more action from the administration of the nation’s first African-American president.
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The president on Friday laid out a series of actions the government could take to help ease racial tensions at the community level, as well as foster a better environment for African-American boys. He also spoke about the sort of negative experiences that are common for young African-American men — some of which he said he has personally experienced — that have prompted the passionate reactions to the Zimmerman verdict.
“There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping at a department store, and that includes me,” he said. He spoke about hearing the locks click on car doors while crossing the street — something Mr. Obama said he experienced before he was senator — or seeing a woman nervously clutch her purse while in an elevator with an African-American man.
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“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. It’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.”
Mr. Obama said that government at all levels could help ease race relations by working with local law enforcement to create racial sensitivity training programs and best practices. As a state senator in Illinois, Mr. Obama helped pass racial profiling legislation that required training for officers on racial bias issues. He said that while police departments were initially resistant, it allowed them to build more trust with their communities.
Next, Mr. Obama said, “I think it’d be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kind of altercations and tragedies” that occurred in the Trayvon Martin case.
The president acknowledged that Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law was not part of Zimmerman’s defense. Nevertheless, Mr. Obama said that kind of law does not necessarily send a positive message.
“If we’re sending a message in our societies … that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there is a way for them to exit from the situation, is that really going to be contributing to the peace and order?” he asked. “For those who resist that idea, I’d just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? Do we actually think he would’ve been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman because he followed him in a car?”
Mr. Obama also said the nation should consider how to “bolster and reinforce our African-American boys.”
“There are a lot of kids out there who need help, who are getting negative reinforcement,” he said, adding there is “more we can do to give them a sense their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest them.”
Mr. Obama added that he is not “naive about the prospects of some new, grand program,” but that business leaders, clergy, athletes, celebrities and others could help “young African-American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed.”
The president said that national dialogues on race are not typically productive because “they end up being stilted and politicized,” but that it’s worth having conversations among families or churches.
Finally, he said the nation shouldn’t lose sight of its progress on issues of race and equality.
“When I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are,” he said. “That’s true of every community that I’ve visited all across the country.”