WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama called on the nation to engage in “soul searching” as he made his first public remarks Friday in the wake of the controversy over the acquittal of volunteer neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
“The question, for me, at least, and I think for a lot of folks is, ‘Where do we take this?’’’ Obama said. “How do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction?”
The remarks — delivered in a surprise appearance at a sparsely attended Friday afternoon White House press briefing — served as some of the most extensive and personal remarks Obama has made on race since he became President. They came as he sought to explain why African-Americans, including himself, have been so pained by the case.
“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.”
Like other African-American men, Obama said he has been followed in department stores and heard the click of car locks when he has walked past.
“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,” Obama said. “And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.”
Obama said he’s talking with aides about steps that can be taken to avoid such incidents, including a possible review of the controversial “stand-your-ground” laws in nearly two dozen states. Though the Florida law wasn’t used in Zimmerman’s defense, Obama asked if Martin “was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?”
But he said that despite criticism of the trial, it was handled “in a professional manner” and that “once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works.”
He called it understandable that there have been demonstrations, vigils and protests, but he called for calm.
“If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family,” he said.
Obama seemed to signal that federal charges against Zimmerman — as many protestors have called for — are unlikely. He noted that Attorney General Eric Holder is reviewing the case, but he called for “clear expectations” on the matter. “Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government,” Obama said. “The criminal code and law enforcement is traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.”
But Obama said he believes there are steps “that as a nation” would be productive and said he’s bouncing ideas around with his staff. Among the issues: law enforcement training at the state and local levels “to reduce the kind of mistrust in the system that sometimes currently exists.”
He also suggested examining state and local laws like stand your ground to determine “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.”
Obama also questioned whether there’s a way to do “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.”
Reporters this week pressed White House press secretary Jay Carney on whether Obama would convene a national conversation on race — as former President Bill Clinton did — but Obama downplayed the move, saying he has not found politician-led conversations to be “particularly productive.”
Instead, he called for some “soul searching” and conversations in homes, churches and at work: “There’s a 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.”
He sought to close his remarks on a positive note, evoking his daughters as he said that each generation “seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race.”
“When I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are,” he said. “They’re better than we were on these issues.”
“Along this long and difficult journey,” Obama said, “we’re becoming a more perfect union — not a perfect union — but a more perfect union.”