Directly wading into the polarizing debate over last weekend’s acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, Obama tried to explain the case through the lens of past discrimination that still weighs heavily on African Americans.
The nation’s first black president, recognizing the disconnect between how whites and blacks were reacting to the Zimmerman verdict, sought to explain why the acquittal had upset so many African Americans.
“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,” Obama said.
Obama first inserted himself into the controversy surrounding Martin’s killing in March 2012, when he said from the White House Rose Garden, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” On Friday, he recalled that statement and added, “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
Obama’s 18-minute remarks, delivered extemporaneously during a surprise afternoon appearance in the White House briefing room, was the most extended discussion of race in his presidency. He has generally avoided talking about race relations, although he delivered a memorable speech on the topic during the 2008 campaign and wrote about his own experience of discrimination in his memoir, “Dreams From My Father.”
A Florida jury’s verdict last Saturday that Zimmerman was not guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter in the killing of Martin has inspired protests and a heated national debate over racial profiling and gun laws.
With the Justice Department reviewing the case and weighing federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman, Obama offered no opinion on the verdict itself.
Obama followed reaction to the trial all week, talking about it with family and friends, a senior administration official said. He summoned his top aides on Thursday to tell them that he wanted to comment publicly on the shooting death of Martin as well as the discrimination he has felt personally.
Obama wanted to “speak from the heart,” the official said, explaining why he opted against reading from a prepared script. He spoke in a hushed and at times halting voice, pausing periodically to compose his thoughts.
“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,” Obama said. “That includes me.”
He 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.”