President Barack Obama, whose election was celebrated as a repudiation of racial prejudice, asked the nation for a “soul searching” examination of race relations in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s shooting death.
“Trayvon Martin could have been me,” Obama said yesterday during a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room to offer his first public remarks about the case since a Florida jury acquitted the man who fatally shot the black teenager.
The president explained in personal terms his reaction to the shooting of the 17-year-old by a Florida neighborhood watch volunteer, underscoring from the most powerful office in the land a vulnerability many black Americans feel to racial profiling and violence -- no matter the status they achieve.
“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,” Obama said. “That includes me.”
Though Obama’s life story as the son of a white mother and a black father was central to his rise and a speech on race relations was a turning point in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, he has rarely addressed the topic in office. In this instance, Obama went well beyond the familiar role of a president expressing national sympathy.
“It’s very unusual for a president to identify with a victim like this,” said Allan J. Lichtman, a political history professor at American University in Washington. “By personalizing it to such an extent, he really has made an important symbolic and emotional statement.”
The image of a president or his children as potential victims of violence could have a “big impact” in fueling a national conversation on the challenges young blacks continue to face, Lichtman said.
Obama said Martin’s death provoked “a lot of pain” among blacks because it reminded many that they have been the targets of suspicion and vulnerable to violence. He said he wanted to discuss the context of protests spurred by the verdict and about ways to move ahead “in a positive direction.”
Martin, 17, was shot in February 2012 in Sanford, Florida, by George Zimmerman, who followed him and reported to police that the teenager was acting suspiciously. Martin was returning from a convenience store. Zimmerman, who was legally carrying a firearm, told police that when he got out of his truck he was confronted and punched by Martin, and shot him in self defense. He was acquitted of a second-degree murder charge.
Obama declined to comment on the legal case, saying he would leave that to “all the legal analysts and talking heads.” He said the trial was conducted professionally and the jury instructed properly. “Once the jury has spoken, that’s how our system works.”
With the prospect of more protests over the verdict today, Obama said any violence “dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family.”
While Attorney General Eric Holder is reviewing the case for possible criminal civil rights violations on the part of Zimmerman, Obama said “it’s important for people to have some clear expectations here.”
The matter mostly involves issues of the criminal code and law enforcement at the state and local level, rather than the federal government, he said.
Obama said the U.S. can do more to help train state and local police to reduce mistrust in minority communities. He also said it would be “useful” to examine state and local laws that “may encourage” violent confrontations, such as the one that left Martin dead.
While Florida’s “stand your ground” law wasn’t used by Zimmerman’s defense in the trial, Obama said such statutes, implemented in whole or part in at least 30 states, may increase the likelihood that someone who is armed would use a gun rather than retreat from a threatening situation.
Obama asked whether Martin would have been freed if he had been legally armed and shot Zimmerman because he felt threatened after being followed.
“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?” Obama 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.”
Such laws, and most law enforcement, are under the jurisdiction of state and local governments and Obama acknowledged the administration’s efforts may be limited primarily to limited to trying to shift public opinion.
The president said he’s thinking about “some long-term project” in the future aimed largely at young black males, who are often swept up in violence and who “need a lot of help” because all they get is “negative reinforcement.”
“Is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?” he said, adding that he is “not naïve” about the prospects of federal program making such changes.
“I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching,” about race, he said, adding that it should be done at the level of family, church and workplace.
While race still plays a role in many of society’s interactions, he said, the situation has gotten better in the U.S. as each generation makes progress in changing attitudes regarding race.
“It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated,” he 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.”
Obama has frequently found himself in the center of the country’s thorniest racial issues. As a candidate in 2008, he gave a speech on race that decried the “racial stalemate” the country has been “stuck in for years.”
He sparked a controversy during his first year in office when he declared on national television that the Cambridge, Massachusetts police had “acted stupidly” when they arrested black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates. Jr. He later calmed tensions by inviting Gates and the police officer for a “beer summit” on the Rose Garden patio.
In mostly steering clear of explicitly racial issue during his presidency, Obama is following the same path as John F. Kennedy, the only Catholic president, who avoided sectarian religious issues in the White House after addressing anti-Catholicism in a campaign-year speech, Lichtman said.
When he first addressed the death of Trayvon Martin last year, Obama spoke passionately about the killed 17-year-old.
“If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon,” Obama said in March 2012. “When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids.”
He recalled that reaction today.
“Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” he said.