Obama remarks on Zimmerman verdict draw accolades
President suggests next steps
By Hazel Trice Edney
Trice Edney Newswire
President Barack Obama’s surprise address to the nation identifying with the anger and hurt over the Trayvon Martin not-guilty verdict has won praise from supporters and detractors alike.
As the nation anticipated protests July 20 in cities across the nation in response to the not-guilty verdict in the shooting of the unarmed teenager, President Obama gave unscripted remarks the afternoon before on racial strife in America that were uniquely personal.
“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. 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,” he said in the 20-minute statement, televised live on some stations.
“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. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.”
He continued, “And 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.”
His comments were met with praise from Black leaders, who welcomed his candid remarks.
“That our president has been profiled should encourage all Americans to think deeply about both the depth of this problem and how our country moves beyond it,” said NAACP President/CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous. “The President’s call to examine the role state laws, including Stand Your Ground, play in compounding racial profiling is especially welcome. Let us move forward to bring justice for Trayvon Martin and toward a more united nation that is truly safe for all Americans.”
A statement from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law also applauded the President:
“As the President eloquently stated — drawing from his own personal experience — African Americans in this country have experienced a long history of prejudice that led to strong emotional reactions about the Zimmerman verdict, about the jury and about an American justice system that convicts Blacks in significantly larger numbers than whites and other racial groups.”
President Obama’s remarks took off some of the sting from the stunning verdict, especially since he has rarely spoken to race issues and had never used such personal examples. But, not everyone was pleased.
The Zimmerman defense team released a response statement saying the verdict was released “fairly and justly.” The defense’s statement continued that they “acknowledge and understand the racial context of this case,” but “we challenge people to look closely and dispassionately at the facts … We believe those who look at the facts of the case without prejudice will see that it is a clear case of self-defense, and we are certain that those who take a closer look at the kind of person George Zimmerman is.”
Actually, President Obama was careful not to speak negatively of the jury’s verdict. “The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner,” he said. “The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed that in a case such as this reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury has spoken, that’s how our system works.”
President Obama added that he only intended to put into context the pain of African Americans in response to the verdict. This strategy drew compliments from at least one of his biggest critics. Republican Senator John McCain told CNN’s State of the Union that Obama’s remarks were “very impressive.” McCain added, “I think we continue to make progress … We still have a long way to go.”
The NAACP and other civil rights advocates have pressed for federal intervention in the Zimmerman case, including the possibility of a federal civil rights prosecution. The president was careful not to assert his involvement in Holder’s investigation and announced no upcoming policy proposals to reverse some of the ways in which African Americans are treated. But, he clearly listed what he perceives as some of the answers.
n Speaking of racial profiling, he said it “would be productive for the Justice Department, governors, mayors to work with law enforcement about training at the state and local levels in order to reduce the kind of mistrust in the system that sometimes currently exists.”
n In reference to the Stand Your Ground self-defense laws, he said it “would 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 kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than diffuse potential altercations.”
n As a “long-term project” he said, “We need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African American boys. And this is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about. 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?”
n He was clear that he was not speaking of a new federal program but hinted that he may call on aspects of the community to discuss next steps. “I do recognize that, as President, I’ve got some convening power, and there are a lot of good programs that are being done across the country on this front. And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes, and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed — I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was obviously a tragic situation.”
n The President suggested open conversations about race. “I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. 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.
“On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about 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.”
In conclusion, the President urged Americans to become “better angels of our nature” by using the negative episodes to gain greater understanding rather than “heighten divisions.” He said: “We’re becoming a more perfect union — not a perfect union but a more perfect union.”