President Barack Obama, making his first public remarks on the George Zimmerman acquittal, said on Friday that many African-Americans believe that “both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different” if Trayvon Martin had been white.
“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son,” Obama said somberly during a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
In searingly personal terms, Obama described his experience with race-based prejudice. “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,” he 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,” he said. “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.”
So “the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history,” judging “what happened one night in Florida” through that lens, he said.
Obama seemed to pour cold water on prospects that a Justice Department review of the case would lead to federal charges against Zimmerman.
"It's important for people to have some clear expectations here. 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 level," the president said.
"The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The jurors were properly instructed that in a case such as this reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict," Obama said. "And once the jury has spoken, that's how our system works."
He also tamped down suggestions he call a national conversation on race, but encouraged churches and families and communities to discuss issues surrounding the case and urged all Americans to engage in some "soul-searching."
And he called for a review of laws such as Florida's "stand your ground" statute, suggesting that they rewrite traditional self-defense rules in a way that fuels violence rather than smother it.
"And for those who resist that idea—that we should think about something like these 'stand your ground' laws—I just ask people to consider: If Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? 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?" the president said.
"And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws," Obama said.
Over the longer term, the president said, "we need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys" and to "give them a sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them."
Obama said he wasn't calling for a brand-new federal program, but suggested he could bring together "business leaders, local elected officials, some clergy, and celebrities and athletes" to find a way to do a "better job helping young African-American men feel that they're a full part of this society and that they've got pathways and avenues to succeed."
Still, the president underlined, "I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better.
"It doesn’t mean we’re in a post-racial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated," Obama said. "But when I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are—they’re better than we were—on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country."
And Americans "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; and that along this long, difficult journey, we’re becoming a more perfect union," he said. "Not a perfect union, but a more perfect union."
So why speak out now?
Obama, who had released a relatively brief written statement on Sunday after the verdict came down Saturday night, watched the national reaction unfold over the course of the week.
He discussed it with friends and family, a White House aide explained. He called together some top advisers late Thursday afternoon and told them he wanted to speak out publicly, the aide said on condition of anonymity to detail the behind-the-scenes work leading up to the remarks.
The aides weighed what the best venue would be—Arrange an interview? Make a statement in the Rose Garden?—and ultimately decided the best approach would be for him to make an unannounced visit to the briefing room.
Obama was eager to “speak extemporaneously and speak from the heart,” the aide said. “There was no speechwriter involved.”