President Barack Obama, in his first public comments about the verdict in the Trayvon Martin shooting death, delivered on Friday some of his most extensive and personal remarks on race since entering the White House as he described what it’s like to be a black man in America.
“When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Obama said in an unscheduled appearance before reporters at the White House. “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.”
The president detailed how most African-American men, including himself, have been followed when shopping in department stores, heard the locks click on car doors when walking across the street and seen women clutch their purses nervously when getting on elevators.
“Those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida,” he said. “And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.”
Obama called on Americans to engage in “soul searching” as they ponder last Saturday’s acquittal of George Zimmerman, 29, who shot Martin, 17, as he was walking home through a gated community in February 2012, and what “concrete steps” they might take to prevent other such deaths.
The president made the surprise appearance at the daily White House news briefing to speak about a case that’s generated scattered demonstrations across the nation since the jury in Sanford, Fla., found Zimmerman not guilty. Zimmerman argued that he was defending himself.
Obama had issued a statement last weekend that called on every American to undergo a period of “calm reflection” after the verdict was announced. But some African-Americans and civil rights groups have been clamoring for him to speak publicly about the case.
He’s shied away from speaking about race, even though as the first African-American president he holds a unique place in history. His reticence has drawn criticism from African-Americans who say he’s not contributing to a greater dialogue on race in America.
White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to say whom Obama had spoken to in preparation for his speech, merely saying, “He knows what he thinks and he knows what he feels and he has – not just in the past week, but for a good portion of his life – given a lot of thought to these issues.”
The president said he and his staff were considering an examination of state and local laws, including so-called stand your ground laws, a type of self-defense measure in more than two dozen states, including Florida, that gives people the right to use reasonable force to defend themselves without requiring them to retreat from dangerous situations.
He also said he was considering asking federal, state and local officials to work with law enforcement on more training and pondering how to engage in a long-term project to prop up African-American boys.
He dismissed the prospect of a national conversation on race that he’d organize – former President Bill Clinton led one – saying that a dialogue would work better if it happened in homes, churches and workplaces.
Attorney General Eric Holder said this week that the Justice Department would continue its yearlong investigation into Martin’s death and determine whether to file federal charges. Thousands of people have signed White House and NAACP petitions calling on the department to launch a civil rights investigation or file charges against Zimmerman.
Obama downplayed that possibility.
“I think it’s important for people to have some clear expectations here,” he said. “Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government, the criminal code. And law enforcement is traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.”
Obama, a lawyer, said he accepted the state jury’s verdict.
“The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner,” he said. “The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed that in a case such as this reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury has spoken, that’s how our system works.”
The president took no questions from reporters, but he tried to close his 30-minute remarks on a more optimistic note, speaking of his daughters and saying: Things are getting better.
“Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race,” he said. “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 see them interact . . . they’re better than we were on these issues.”