President Barack Obama spoke frankly about race in America on Friday and said slain teenager Trayvon Martin “could’ve been me 35 years ago” in his first public comments about the outcome of George Zimmerman’s murder trial.
“When Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could’ve been my son,” Obama said in an unannounced visit to the White House press briefing room. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could’ve been me 35 years ago.”
Read Obama’s remarks in full
Obama said black Americans feel a particular pain about Martin’s shooting death because they are “looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.” Zimmerman was cleared of criminal charges in Martin’s death, but the Justice Department is exploring whether he violated the teen’s civil rights.
Obama spoke very personally about his own experiences growing up as a black man, saying, “There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were in a department store. And that includes me.”
“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,” he continued. “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 the black community also isn’t “naive” about the fact that young black men are “disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system.”
“They’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence,” Obama said. “It’s not to make excuses for that fact — although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context. They understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.”
He said the community similarly isn’t naive that “somebody like Trayvon Martin was statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else.”
“Folks understand the challenges that exist for African American boys,” he said. “But they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there’s no context for it and that context is being denied.”
Obama said there’s a sense 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.”
He said the country needs to do a little “soul-searching” on issues of race, and that he wants to think more long-term about what can be done to support young black men. He suggested Justice Department work with governors and mayors to alleviate mistrust in law enforcement and said laws like Florida’s “stand your ground” statute might need another look.
“I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?” Obama said. “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, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.”
Obama ended his remarks on a hopeful note, saying “things are getting better.”
“Each successive generation seems to be making progress and changing attitude on the basis of race,” he said. “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.”
Obama said Americans need to be vigilant and continue to work on issues of race, but said those in authority should not use episodes like Martin’s death to “heighten divisions.”
“We should also have confidence that kids these days I think have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did,” Obama said. “We’re becoming a more perfect union. Not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.”
This post has been updated.