A sombre Barack Obama urged all Americans to use last weekend’s acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case as a moment to “wring” the bias out of their own selves and asked that they attempt to understand the trauma of the trial through the perspective of an African-American person.
The 17-year-old was shot and killed in Florida by Mr Zimmerman in February 2012.
In an appearance in the briefing room of the White House, Mr Obama offered thoughts on race and his country more candid and more far-reaching than perhaps on any occasion since he became America’s first black president over four years ago. He made a first brief statement on the outcome of the trial when it ended. He has been under pressure since to give a more expansive reading of the not guilty verdict that triggered protests on both coasts.
“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son,” he noted. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” Although Mr Obama took care to say that Florida carried out the trial correctly and did not question the jury’s decision, he signaled his emotional leaning to the plight of Mr Martin, an unarmed teenager shot by Mr Zimmerman on his way back from a corner shop.
His family, he said, had shown “incredible grace and dignity with which they've dealt with the entire situation”.
Asking for understanding of the black perspective on what occurred, he said: “It’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that - that doesn’t go away,” Mr. Obama said in the briefing room. “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.”
“I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.”
And while he said he saw from watching his own daughters and friends, the country has made progress on race since he was young, he suggested it remained the right moment for everyone to consider their own attitudes “Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can; am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.”
Echoing comments made by the Attorney General, Eric Holder, earlier in the week, Mr Obama also took tentative aim at the Stand Your Ground self-defence laws on the books in Florida and other states. “I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see if it — if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than defuse potential altercations,” the president said.