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President Obama speaks personally on Trayvon Martin and race

On the eve of more protests over the George Zimmerman verdict, Obama discusses black skepticism of the legal system and his own experience with prejudice.

July 19, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons
  • In an extraordinary soliloquy at the White House briefing room, President Obama spoke about race and the George Zimmerman verdict: "Trayvon Martin could've been me, 35 years ago."
In an extraordinary soliloquy at the White House briefing room, President… (Win McNamee, Getty Images )

WASHINGTON — In an extraordinary 19-minute soliloquy, President Obama on Friday spoke bluntly and emotionally about his personal experiences with prejudice, the roots of African American skepticism toward the legal system and his optimism about the future of a nation still fractured along racial lines.

The comments, in a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room, were Obama's most extensive and personal on race since his election almost five years ago. Obama spoke on the eve of planned national protests over the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who fatally shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenager, in 2012.

The president's remarks followed several days of internal White House discussions about how the first black president should respond to the Florida jury's decision in the Zimmerman case. The White House released a statement by Obama a day after the verdict, but the president himself had not commented until Friday.

"When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. And another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago," Obama said. "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.

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"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," Obama continued. "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. 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."

Obama's comments marked a rare moment for him. He has only occasionally addressed racial issues since a speech in 2008, in which he talked memorably about racism within his own family at a time when his presidential campaign faced controversy over his relationship with the outspoken black pastor Jeremiah Wright.

But since his reelection last year, the president has shown a new willingness to talk about the subject, although mostly to overseas audiences. In speeches in Myanmar, Germany and Northern Ireland, Obama has spoken of the U.S. history of slavery and bigotry, and cited himself as the once-unlikely evidence of one nation's progress.

A few weeks ago, on his first major tour of Africa as president, he noted that racial prejudice in South Africa had spurred his political activism as a 19-year-old. "As the son of an African father and a white American mother, the diversity of America was in my blood, but I had never cared much for politics" until getting involved in the fight against apartheid, Obama said at a speech at the University of Cape Town.

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In Friday's comments, Obama said little about Zimmerman, but said the trial had been conducted "in a professional manner."

"The jurors were properly instructed that in a case such as this reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury has spoken, that's how our system works," he said.

Obama's remarks were greeted warmly by Martin's parents.

"We know our family has become a conduit for people to talk about race in America and to try and talk about the difficult issues that we need to bring into the light in order to become a better people," Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin said in a statement. "What touches people is that our son, Trayvon Benjamin Martin, could have been their son. President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him. This is a beautiful tribute to our boy."

The White House would not say whether Obama had called Martin's family, and Obama ignored the question shouted at him as he left the briefing room.

Instead of dwelling on the acquittal, Obama focused on reaching out to young black men.

He said the White House was looking at several ways to respond to the Zimmerman case, including measures to address racial profiling by law enforcement, initiatives aimed at supporting youth and a review of "stand your ground" self-defense laws.

The president didn't say explicitly that he found such state laws improper, but he suggested they are ripe for racial bias and problematic in practice.

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