WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Barack Obama grappled with the Trayvon Martin case in the most personal of terms on Friday, telling Americans that the slain youth “could have been me 35 years ago” and urging them to do some soul searching about their attitudes on race.
The nation’s first black president said the nation needs to look for ways to move forward after the shooting and trial in Florida. And he said it may be time to take a hard look at “stand your ground” self-defense laws, questioning whether they contribute “to the kind of peace and security and order that we’d like to see.”
“Where do we take this?” Obama wondered aloud during an unscheduled appearance in the White House briefing room. “How do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction?”
His appearance marked his first extended comments on the Martin case since neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was acquitted last weekend of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in Martin’s death last year. Jurors found that Zimmerman was acting in self-defense when he shot the unarmed black teenager. Zimmerman identifies himself as Hispanic.
Obama said that as people process the verdict, it’s important to put the pained and angry reaction of many African-Americans into context.
Protests and demonstrations, he said, are understandable, adding that “some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through – as long as it remains nonviolent.”
“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,” he said.
The president said that distrust shadows African-American men: They sometimes are closely followed when they shop at department stores; they can draw nervous stares on elevators and hear car locks clicking when they walk down the street – experiences that he said he personally felt before becoming a well-known figure.
“It’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear,” he said.
Obama said black Americans recognize a history of racial disparities in how laws are applied on the death penalty and involving drug cases, but he also said the African-American community was not “naive about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence.”
The president said it’s time “for all of us to do some soul searching,” though he said it’s generally not productive when politicians try to orchestrate a national conversation that ends up being stilted and politicized.
He added that conversations within families and at churches and workplaces, where people may be more honest, could help people to ask themselves, “Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?”
Overall, Obama said, race relations in the United States actually are getting better. Citing his own daughters and their interactions with friends, the president said, “They’re better than we are. They’re better than we were.”
“Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race,” he said.
The president declined to wade into the detail of legal questions about the Florida case, saying, “Once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works.”
But he said state and local laws, such as Florida’s “stand your ground” statute, need a close look.
Obama said it would be useful “to examine some state and local laws to see if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of confrontation” that led to Martin’s death. He questioned whether a law that sends the message that someone who is armed “has the right to use those firearms even if there is a way for them to exit from a situation” really promotes peace and security.
And he raised the question of whether Martin himself, if he had been armed and of age, “could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk” and shot Zimmerman if he felt threatened when being followed.
Obama also said the country needs to look at ways to improve local law enforcement through better training and resources, and needs to look for ways to “bolster and reinforce” African-American boys.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said the Justice Department has an open investigation into the case. The department is looking into whether Zimmerman violated Martin’s civil rights.