Nearly a week after George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin, President Barack Obama made his feelings about the situation clear: race and racism had a lot to do with Martin’s death, and the country needs to start grappling with what that means.
In arguably the most direct and personal comments about race he’s ever made as a public official, Obama went deeper Friday into his personal experience than he had in his famous 2008 speech on the issue.
He spoke of being followed through stores, about hearing people lock their car doors when they saw him coming down the street — him, not “black men,” not “people,” but Barack Obama, a black man himself.
Trayvon Martin wasn’t just the son he might have had, as he said last March. “Another way of saying that,” Obama said in his surprise appearance in the White House briefing room, “is, Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
Obama addressed the issue under some constraint. With the Justice Department exploring civil rights charges against Zimmerman, as Attorney General Eric Holder pledged to do in the wake of the verdict, the president could endanger any future charges by seeming to influence the investigation.
Aware of this, many black leaders had held off publicly pushing the White House to say much, in an effort to avoid sabotaging the only remaining chance to see Zimmerman serve time for Martin’s death.
The president explicitly avoided the legal issues Friday, stressing in a continuing call for calm that he wasn’t going to take issue with the behavior of the people involved in the Florida trial.
“The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed that in a case such as this, reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict,” Obama said. “And once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works.”
He could have left it there. He could have heeded his own observation Friday that it wasn’t always “particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations.”
Instead, in unscripted remarks that seemed to embrace his role as the first black president in a way that some concerned about race relations had all but given hope he might, he said clearly, “I do recognize that as president, I’ve got some convening power.”
That power, he said, wasn’t standing in front of the country to present “some five-point plan.” And he admitted Friday that he wasn’t going to get into specifics because he’s “still bouncing around” ideas with his staff.
But even people who’ve criticized him for not saying enough about race say his Friday afternoon comments alone have started to change the conversation.
“What the president is trying so desperately hard to do is to have people acknowledge that we have a great deal of racism in this county,” said Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.). “I don’t think it could be more personal to a black person than when he talks about, Trayvon would look like a son if he had a son, or he could be Trayvon.”
Whatever legislative or other efforts the president might hope to pursue, Rangel said, they’ll never be much use without the kind of frank discussion of racism that Obama embraced on Friday.
“The president has said that the problem that we have in this country is not Zimmerman — it’s what creates the situation of Zimmerman,” Rangel said. “The president has taken advantage of the opportunity to say that we can do better, but we cannot do better if we say there is no problem.”
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who had been among those urging caution to avoid interfering with the DOJ investigation, said he thought the president had managed to do that, while also delivering remarks that would mean a great deal to fellow African-Americans and the country as a whole — balancing “his role as president of the United States and his existence as a black man.”
Jeffries called Obama’s statement “heartfelt, thoughtful, powerful and respectful of the judicial process… He spoke from the perspective of Trayvon in a way that the prosecution failed to do.”
The president said Friday that part of the problem with the case had stemmed from the fact that law enforcement standards varied widely, saying the federal government should “work with law enforcement about training at the state and local levels.” Obama also called for a reexamination of self-defense laws at the state and local level.
“If we’re sending a message as a society and in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there’s a way or them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind if peace and security and order that we’d like to see?” Obama asked.
The president also said that the problem goes beyond policies and politics — and that the country must do more for young African Americans.
“Is there more that we can do to give them a sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?” Obama asked.
Obama said the anger over the verdict — especially in the black community — was justified.
“I think it’s understandable that there have been protests and vigils,” he said about the outpouring of both anger and support for the verdict. But he called for calm, even as he said vigils wouldn’t be enough.
Ultimately, Obama said that progress on the issue of race has been made.
“Things are getting better,” Obama said. “Each successive generation seems to be making progress in terms of changing attitudes.”
The Martin case drew national attention after the unarmed teenager was shot and killed while walking home from a convenience store by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. After a short trial, Zimmerman was acquitted by a Florida jury last week.
Some have cheered the verdict as a vindication of self-defense laws. Others have criticized the verdict, raising the issue of race and racial profiling — accusing Zimmerman of confronting Martin simply because he was black.
Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary for President George W. Bush, said he saw a problem in the president’s decision to relate himself directly to Martin.
“It tells me he’s been under considerable pressure from the liberal base, the African-American community in the country to say something. But it’s nice of the president to put on one hat and not the hat of all the American people, especially when a jury has spoken,” Fleischer said.
Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League, dismissed that kind of response as “not credible,” and an attempt to “marginalize justice.” He said that Obama’s remarks Friday fit within the tradition of John F. Kennedy addressing the nation after the violence in Birmingham in 1963 or George W. Bush’s speech from Jackson Square in New Orleans after Katrina.
As in both of those instances — and Obama’s own speeches after the Aurora or Newtown mass shootings — the president should speak out at key moments on issues central to the nation, Morial said.
“I would hope that the conservative interests in America would realize that this is a time to get beyond partisanship and stock responses to try to address the challenges that young boys and men face in America,” Morial said. “This is consistent with the tradition of the presidency. President Obama had the opportunity to speak to this in a unique way, but any and every president would be asked and called on to speak on this issue.”
And going forward, NAACP president Ben Jealous said that Obama’s personalization of profiling raises the hopes that Martin’s death will lead the way to progress on seeing that addressed.
“That our president has been profiled should encourage all Americans to think deeply about both the depth of this problem and how our country moves beyond it,” Jealous said. “The president’s call to examine the role state laws, including Stand Your Ground, play in compounding racial profiling is especially welcome.”