US President Barack Obama called on Americans to do some soul searching over the death of black teenager Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his shooter, saying in a rare public reflection on race that the slain 17-year-old “could have been me 35 years ago.”
Empathizing with the pain of many black Americans, Obama said the case conjured up a hard history of racial injustice “that doesn’t go away.”
Obama’s personal comments, in a surprise appearance in the White House press room, marked his most extensive discussion of race as president. For Obama, who has written about his own struggles with racial identity, but often has shied away from the subject in office, the speech signaled an unusual embrace of his standing as the nation’s first black president and the longing of many African-Americans for him to give voice to their experiences.
“When you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think 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,” Obama said.
A Florida jury last week acquitted George Zimmerman of all charges in February last year’s shooting of Martin, who was an unarmed. The verdict was cheered by those who agreed that Zimmerman was acting in self-defense, while others protested the outcome, believing Zimmerman, who identifies himself as Hispanic, had targeted Martin because he was black.
Even as the president urged the public to accept the verdict — “once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works” — he gave voice to the feelings held by many angered by the jury’s decisions.
There is a sense, Obama said, “that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.”
The president spoke emotionally about Martin’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, saying they had displayed incredible grace and dignity. He never mentioned the feelings of Zimmerman, whose brother has said the former defendant has faced numerous death threats.
Martin’s parents released a statement following the remarks, saying: “President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him. This is a beautiful tribute to our boy.”
Despite that fact that Obama’s race has been central to the narrative of his political rise, he has rarely addressed the matter as a public figure. However, on Friday, Obama spoke poignantly about the distrust that shadows many African-American men, saying that they can draw nervous stares on elevators and hear car locks clicking when they walk down the street.
“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.”
Seeking to inject a sense of hope into his otherwise somber remarks, the president said race relations in the US have improved with each passing generation.
He said his young daughters and their friends are “better than we were.”
“We’re becoming a more perfect union,” he said. “Not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.”