President Obama on Friday offered stark comments about race in his first on-camera remarks since a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
In a surprise appearance at the White House press briefing, Obama said he’d been a victim of racial profiling and empathized with black Americans outraged by Zimmerman’s acquittal.
“When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son,” Obama said.
“Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, 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.”
The president said that blacks experienced, on a daily basis, the manifestations of prejudice.
“There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of being followed in a department store,” he said. “That includes me.”
But the president said he also hoped to find ways to “learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction.”
He called for a review of so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws, asking if they were “contributing to the kind of peace and order we would have like to see.”
“It'd be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kind of altercations and confrontations and tragedies we saw in the Florida case,” Obama said.
That call echoes one from Attorney General Eric Holder, which has been criticized by some Republicans and groups like the National Rifle Association. They contend the laws are a crucial protection for those who are trying to defend themselves.
Obama also suggested it would be “productive” for the Justice Department to work with state and local law enforcement officials to “reduce the mistrust” with the African-American community. And he said he would encourage churches, families and workspaces to more critically examine their racial attitudes.
“Those of us in authority should be doing everything in our power to encourage the better angels of our nature,” Obama said.
The president’s remarks — which appeared unscripted — also touched on the complexities of American race relations, and the difficult questions that had arisen in the aftermath of the Martin shooting.
He said that it was important to interpret the frustration of the African American community “in a historical context.”
“I don’t wand to exaggerate this but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida,” Obama said. “It’s inescapable for people to bring those experience to bear.”
The president noted “a history of racial disparity in the application of our criminal laws,” and suggested things would have been different were Martin white.
“Folks understand the challenges that exist for African American boys, but they get frustrated if they feel there is no context for it and that context is being denied,” Obama said. “And that all contributes, I think to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that from both top to bottom both the outcome and the aftermath might be different.”
But the president also emphasized that the trial had been conducted fairly and properly.
“They rendered a verdict, and once the jury has spoken, that's how our system works,” Obama said.
And the president said those in the African American community were not “naïve about the fact that African American men are disproportionately... both perpetrators and victims of violence.”
“Statistically someone like Trayvon Martin was statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was someone else,” Obama said.
It was the president’s first major speech on race since his famous Philadelphia address during the 2008 presidential primary, when he responded to questions about racially-charged remarks his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, made from the pulpit.
Obama decided to address the Martin verdict after having "several conversations with his family and friends,” according to a White House official.
The president felt it was "important that he make remarks so the country could hear from him in a broader context," the official said, adding the president had been "watching the reaction around the country and in the African American community."
The president did not prepare specific talking points to reference, according to the official.
"He didn't wan't to give an interview or focus on a big speech — he just wanted to speak from the heart about where he thinks we can go," the official said, noting that there was no teleprompter in the room and that the moments that Obama appeared "pensive" were genuine.
Obama had been under pressure from black political leaders to address the Zimmerman verdict.
Rev. Jesse Jackson told CNN on Thursday that the “heat will continue to rise” and that “at some point the president must offer the moral leadership he has to offer” regarding the case.
White House press secretary Jay Carney wouldn’t detail which black leaders had reached out to the president, reporting simply “the president wanted to say something.”
“Obviously, he has conversations with a lot of people, as he does on every issue, but I don't think there's any question — and you can judge by what he just said and how he said it — that he knows what he thinks and he knows what he feels, and he has —not just in the past week, but for a good portion of his life — given a lot of thought to these issues,” Carney said.
Obama closed his remarks on an optimistic note, saying Americans were “making progress in changing attitudes” on race. He said that while it “doesn't mean we're in a post-racial society or that racism has been eliminated,” that his daughter’s generation was “better than we are” on issues of race.
“Kids these days I think have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did, and that along this long, difficult journey, you know, we’re becoming a more perfect union — not a perfect union, but a more perfect union,” Obama said.
This story was posted at 1:54 p.m. and updated at 3:35 p.m. and 4:15 p.m.