In his first extensive remarks on the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of a black teenager in Sanford, Fla., President Obama on Friday spoke about his own experiences and those of other African Americans, and remarked, "Trayvon Martin could've been me 35 years ago."
Obama made a surprise visit to the White House press room on Friday, and said, "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."
Last week, a jury of six women acquitted neighborhood watch volunteer Zimmerman of second-degree murder and manslaughter. In February 2012, Zimmerman, whose parents are white and Hispanic, shot 17-year-old Martin. Many believed the killing was racially motivated, but Zimmerman said the shooting was in self-defense.
"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," Obama said. "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," he added. "That happens to me – at least before I was a senator."
Wall Street Journal reported in 2008 on Obama, when he was a state senator, being mistaken for a waiter at a party in New York in 2003.
"Folks understand the challenges that exist for African-American boys," Obama continued. "But they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there's no context for it and that context is being denied. 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 top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different."
While Obama did not undermine the judiciary, he spoke about how some would look at Zimmerman's acquittal. "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. The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws – everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case."
Many African-American boys are "painted with a broad brush" and the excuses given is that "there are these statistics out there that show that African-American boys are more violent," the president pointed out. He said the African American community is not "naïve about the fact that African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system; that they're disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence." But they do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context, Obama said.
Days after the jury's decision, Obama issued a statement, calling the death of Martin a tragedy "not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America." He said, "But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son."
Obama also called for efforts to curb gun violence in his statement last week. "We should ask ourselves if we're doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis. We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this. As citizens, that's a job for all of us. That's the way to honor Trayvon Martin."
However, some Republicans blamed Obama for politicizing the case. "The evidence didn't support prosecution, and the Justice Department engaged in this, the president engaged in this and turned it into a political issue that should have been handled exclusively with law-and-order," Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said during his interview on "Fox News Sunday."
On Friday, the president ended his remarks with a positive note, saying "things are getting better."
"Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race," Obama said. "…We should also have confidence that 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, we're becoming a more perfect union – not a perfect union, but a more perfect union."