President Obama delivered one of his most memorable, extended commentaries on race in America in his time as president on Friday afternoon, making an impromptu appearance in the White House briefing room where he detailed his own experience with racial profiling and called for a broader conversation on race in America in the wake of the verdict in Trayvon Martin case.
After days of silence following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, Obama spoke nearly 20 minutes about the ruling, without a teleprompter or using notes. (He spoke “from the heart,” a White House aide later.)In unusually personal and blunt tones, Obama acknowledged that black men disproportionately commit crimes in America but also about the fear their parents have about them being racially profiled. He noted the challenges of race in America, saying our society is not “post-racial,” but also, speaking of his daughters and their experiences, that younger generations of Americans are “better than we were” on race.
Obama delivered a series of lines that only an African-American president could. He said, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” an even more personal expression than last year, when the president had suggested if he had a son, he would resemble Martin. He added, “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. 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.”
In another moment, Obama said, “this isn’t to say that the African-American community is naive about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence.” He added, “I think the African-American community is also not naive in understanding that statistically somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else.”
He notably did not question the verdict of the jury in the Zimmerman case, saying, “the jurors were properly instructed.” He hinted the Justice Department was unlikely to file a civil suit against Zimmerman, saying “the criminal code and law enforcement is traditionally done at the state and local levels, not the federal levels.”
Obama suggested there should be a broader review of “Stand Your Ground” laws in states around the country, as well as examining if racial profiling happens too often. He also urged “thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys.”
“This is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about,” Obama 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?”
Obama said a national conversation on race should also happen, but that he would not lead it.
“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,” Obama said.
White House officials said Obama had watched the commentary around the verdict the last few days, and in a meeting with senior advisers on Thursday, said it was “really important” for Americans to hear from him personally. Aides said he had spent the last few days talking to friends and family about what he should say, although they declined to name any of the people Obama reached out. His silence was drawing questions from the press and others, particularly as Attorney General Eric Holder had publicly spoken twice about the ruling, calling for a broader conversation on race and closer scrutiny of “Stand Your Ground” laws.
Until today, Obama had not given an extended speech on race in America since his memorable address in the 2008 campaign following the controversy over his one-time pastor Jeremiah Wright.
Today’s speech was given in a completely different context. Obama was at the podium, as the first-ever black person elected and reelected as president. He carefully balanced not questioning the ruling in the case with attempting to speak to the anguish, particularly among African-Americans, after the verdict.
“When you think about why in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here I think its 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.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr