President Obama broke his silence on the Trayvon Martin shooting case Friday, speaking publicly for the first time since a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman.
Obama didn’t question the jury’s not-guilty verdict.
But he spoke in unusually personal terms about the history and experiences that shape the way African Americans in particular see the case.
He spoke frankly about the pain the Trayvon Martin case has left, especially in the African American community. He said that’s a product of a common history that doesn’t go away.
“Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” he said.
African Americans aren’t naive, the president said. They understand young black men are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system both as suspects and victims. But, he added, that’s no reason a 17-year-old like Trayvon Martin should be treated differently than anyone else.
“Folks understand the challenges that exist for African American boys,” he said. “But they get frustrated, I think, if they feel there’s no context for it. And that context is being denied.”
Obama is unusually gifted at supplying that context, in speeches and a best-selling memoir that explored his own racial identity and the country’s. But race has also been a political minefield for Obama. His ties to the controversial black pastor Jeremiah Wright almost derailed his first presidential campaign.
He caught heat in 2009, when he criticized Cambridge police for arresting a black Harvard professor. Even his observation last year that if he had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin, prompted objections from some, like Abigail Thernstrom, a conservative scholar who sits on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
“I don’t think the racial climate in this country is helped when the president wades into what are always turbulent, racial waters and stirs things up, which is what he did,” Thernstrom says.
With that kind of pushback, America’s first black president has at times seemed reluctant to talk about racial issues. That’s frustrated some African American supporters, like Lester Spence, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University and the father of three boys.
“For black people who voted for him to ask that he speak not in generalities but that he speak forcefully to the value of black male life, that’s both within our right to ask him and it is his responsibility to do so,” Spence says.
Aides say over the last week, Obama had been talking with friends and family about the Trayvon Martin verdict. On Friday, he paid a surprise visit to the White House briefing room, where he spoke in personal terms about what it’s like for young black men like Martin to be constantly viewed with suspicion.
“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,” he said. “That includes me.”
Obama suggested the Justice Department could work with state and local governments to reduce racial profiling. He also called for a review of controversial Stand Your Ground laws, asking pointedly, what if Trayvon Martin had the gun?
“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 also said he hopes to enlist more community support for young black men.
“There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement,” he said. “And is there more that we can do to give them a sense that their country cares about them?”
The president acknowledged that’s a long-term project, but said it would be one good outcome from an otherwise tragic situation.