In rare, direct remarks on race in America, President Barack Obama spoke at length about how the African-American community views the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, and laid out a path forward in surprise remarks Friday at the White House.
“When Trayvon Martin was first shot I said this could have been my son. ... Another way of saying it is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” the president said.
Obama tried to explain the reaction of the African-American community to the verdict. He said African-Americans look at the case “through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”
“There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed in a department store, including me,” he noted. He also mentioned women clutching their purses nervously in elevators with African-American men, or people locking doors, or a history of disparate treatment in the criminal justice system as informing how African-Americans viewed what happened to Martin.
As for the case itself, Obama praised the judge, said the jury was properly instructed and “reasonable doubt was relevant and they rendered a verdict.
“That’s how our system works,” he said.
He noted that the Justice Department was looking into the case but lowered expectations that it would act, noting that these issues are typically enforced at the state level.
He did suggest that states should examine their laws, such as “stand your ground” statutes, to see if they were making deadly confrontations more or less likely.
Obama said that while Florida’s stand your ground law was not asserted in Zimmerman’s defense, he questioned whether it sent a message of confrontation. He asked what would have happened if Martin had been armed and felt threatened when he was being followed?
“Would he have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman?” Obama asked.
He said if the answer is ambiguous under stand your ground, then that raises the question of whether the law is encouraging deadly confrontations when a person could leave the situation instead.
As for the reaction to the case, Obama said that any violence would dishonor what happened to Martin and his family, and said he hoped people would listen to their better angels about how to move forward.
He said he was skeptical of convening a conversation on race relations — saying such events tend to be stilted — but wants to find a way to encourage young black men and boys.
He said he was not naïve about the ability to create some new federal program but talked about bringing leaders together to find a way to encourage young black men and show that they are full members of society and have pathways to success they can follow.
The president ended on a hopeful note. He said things are getting better and that he sees it in his own daughters and how they act.