President Obama made an unexpected appearance in the White House briefing room on Friday to comment on the result of the George Zimmerman trial. In a somber and reflective tone, he made some of his most profound — and likely controversial — comments on race since he was first elected president in 2008.
The president sent his condolences to the Martin family, then commended the judge and jurors who decided that Zimmerman was not guilty of murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. After stating that he respected the verdict, he added, “But I did want to just talk a little bit about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling.”
For the president, the feelings around the case are obviously personal.
“When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said this ‘could’ve been my son,'” he said. “Another way of saying that is, a Trayvon Martin could’ve been me 35 years ago.”
He tried to place this in a context that he, as the first African-American president, can uniquely express.
“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,” he said. “That includes me.”
Showing a subtle command of the nuance surrounding the discussion of the case, he explained that African-Americans understood that Martin was statistically more likely to be shot by one of his peers.
“A lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush. And the excuse is given that, well, there are these statistics out there that show African-American boys are more violent, using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.”
The president asked Americans to think about the role race played in the application of justice.
“Folks understand the challenges that exist for African-American boys,” he said. “But they get frustrated that they feel that there’s no context for them, that that context is being denied. And that all contributes to 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.”
Obama pointed out that conservatives believe that the “Stand Your Ground” law played no role in the Zimmerman case, despite clear evidence that it did, but he echoed his attorney general Eric Holder in calling for a review of these laws.
“If Trayvon Martin was of age and was armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?” he asked. “If the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we should examine those laws.”