In a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room, President Obama spoke at length Friday about the impact of the George Zimmerman trial and the death of black teenager Trayvon Martin, talking of his own personal experiences with racism, saying it would be “useful” to review “stand your ground” laws and to renew efforts aimed at boosting the self-esteem of black boys.
After a week of reporters questioning why Mr. Obama hadn’t spoken on television about the case, the president appeared in the White House press briefing room unannounced and discussed his reaction to the verdict and observing that Trayvon Martin “could have been me 35 years ago.”
The president, speaking off the cuff, said he is still “bouncing around” ideas with his staff, but he proposed several approaches, including a study of “stand your ground” laws that allow people to use deadly force when they feel threatened.
“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 kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies like we saw in the Florida case,” Mr. Obama said.
The president also said Americans need to examine whether racial bias was a factor in the episode.
“If Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?” Mr. Obama asked. “And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting” Mr. Zimmerman?
A Florida jury on Saturday found Mr. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, not guilty of second-degree murder in the February 2012 shooting of the teen. The Justice Department is reviewing whether the teenager’s civil rights were violated.
The president spoke in unusually personal terms about Trayvon Martin’s death and the experiences of blacks such as himself who have been profiled because of their skin color. He said black Americans bring a special history and set of circumstances in judging the Florida trial and its verdict.
“When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son,” Mr. 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 — that doesn’t go away.”
Mr. Obama added, “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.”
“And 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 car,” the president said. “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.”
Mr. Obama said he didn’t want to “exaggerate” those feelings of black citizens.
“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,” he said.
Immediately after the Feb. 2012 shooting, Mr. Obama spoke out about the case, saying if he had a son, the boy might have looked like Travyon Martin. On Friday, the president said communities should do more to help black boys in their upbringing to ensure they succeed.
He said the country needs to think about “how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys?”
“There are a lot of kids out there who need help, who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement,” Mr. Obama said, adding that America needs to give them “a sense that their country cares about them.”
Mr. Obama said black Americans “are not naive” about the difficulties they face.
“Folks understand the challenges that exist for African-American boys,” he said. “But they get frustrated if they feel there’s no context for it, and context is being denied.”
The president said Americans should respect the jury’s verdict, but said white Americans should also understand that African Americans are anguished by the acquittal and still face racial discrimination. He said Americans should do “soul-searching,” but expressed skepticism that a “national conversation” on face would do much good if led by politicians.
“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?” Mr. Obama said.