After a week of rising clamor in the wake of the George Zimmerman acquittal, President Obama strode out onto the stage in the White House briefing room and delivered one of the most powerful and personal speeches about race that the nation has ever seen from the occupant of the White House. Speaking on the death of young Trayvon Martin, Obama said, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
The president also blasted the Stand Your Ground law—which his attorney general Eric Holder also criticized earlier in the week. Obama said the country needed to focus more attention on improving the plight of young black males.
Obama tried to explain to the nation why the African-American community has reacted with such outrage and pain to Zimmerman’s acquittal, putting the verdict in the context of the nation’s history of racism and the difficulties black people still face in this country. It was a moment that television commentators across the airwaves described as “historic.” NBC’s Andrea Mitchell said his comments “gave me chills.”
“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Obama said to a shocked press corps, which hadn’t even been warned that the president would appear at the briefing. “And 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—that doesn’t go away. 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. And 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 said those sorts of experiences shape the black community’s reaction to the Zimmerman verdict, in addition to the community’s knowledge of the serious racial disparities in the application of justice in the legal system. He said the black community is not naive about the prevalence of black-on-black crime and the violence of many black neighborhoods, and that black folks are aware of the historical context that created these conditions. He said there’s a frustration born from the knowledge that the Trayvon case would have gone very differently if it were a white male teen instead of a black male.
The president then seemed to try to manage expectations as many African-American activists, such as Rev. Al Sharpton and the NAACP, have been calling on the federal government to file charges against Zimmerman for violating Trayvon’s civil rights.
“Beyond protests or vigils, the question is, are there some concrete things that we might be able to do?” he asked. “I know that Eric Holder is reviewing what happened down there, but I think 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 has traditionally done it at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels. That doesn’t mean, though, that as a nation, we can’t do some things that I think would be productive.”
One of the things the president pointed out was the need for increased law enforcement training to reduce the use of racial profiling, which was a signature issue of his when he was in the Illinois state senate.
Obama also took on the Stand Your Ground law that was such a lightning rod in the Zimmerman case, using a deft but potentially explosive hypothetical to highlight the racial problems inherent in Stand Your Ground—a law on the books now in more than 30 states.
“I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see if it — if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than diffuse potential altercations,” he said. “If we’re sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there’s a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we’d like to see? 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? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.”
Describing it as a “long-term project,” the president said the nation needed to focus on bolstering and reinforcing African-American boys.”This is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about,” he said. “There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And 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? You know, I’m not naive about the prospects of some brand-new federal program. I’m not sure that that’s what we’re talking about here. But I do recognize that as president, I’ve got some convening power. And there are a lot of good programs that are being done across the country on this front. And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African-American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that — and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed — you know, I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was obviously a tragic situation. And we’re going to spend some time working on that and thinking about that.”
Obama concluded by saying that the country has some soul-searching to do, and that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that things are improving.
“There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have,” he said. “On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s a possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can; am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy. And let me just leave you with — with a final thought, that as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn’t mean that we’re in a post-racial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But you know, 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.”
After his remarks, MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, who is also a political science professor at Tulane University, compared it to the speech given by President Kennedy after Birmingham sheriff Bull Connor turned the hoses and dogs on the marching children of Birmingham:
“But the part that’s completely unique, that has never happened before, the part I’m not even sure we can capture how important it is, is that the president of the United States, an African-American man, who is both of those things at same time, stood there at the podium with the official insignia of the White House behind him, and said the history and the pain and the contemporary experiences of black people in this country matter—they shape how they experience something like the Zimmerman verdict and if we’re going to move forward as a nation, we must acknowledge the realities of those experiences. Just that recognition, of the humanity and experiences of black people, from the president of the United States, is absolutely historic.”