Yesterday, President Obama made a surprise appearance in the briefing room at the White House to make some remarks about the Trayvon Martin verdict.
The President had made a brief, impersonal comment following the jury's verdict but said he wanted to expand his thoughts a little bit after watching the country debate -- and protest -- the decision during the past week.
Obama started out by extending his sympathy to Trayvon's family. He commended the judge and jury, saying, "Americans should respect the verdict," and then he got into the meat of his talk -- a discussion about race in America, during which he talked about his own personal experience as an African-American man in this country.
[W]hen 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.
Obama addressed why emotions over the Zimmerman verdict are running so high. He explained the lens through which many black Americans see the case -- and how their own experiences and our country's history inform their perception:
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.
Obama noted that those experiences shouldn't be exaggerated:
Now, this isn't to say that the African American community is 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. It's not to make excuses for that fact -- although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.
That 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was murdered on a street in Florida is a crime and a tragedy. George Zimmerman was found not guilty of that crime, and whether you think that verdict was just or not, it must be noted that Zimmerman did not act alone. The citizens of the U.S. were complicit in that shooting, just as we are complicit in the acts of racism that continue to occur throughout the country on a daily basis.
Many conservatives are criticizing the President for making these remarks at all. Yet, it's poignant that the Trayvon Martin travesty happened during a time the first African-American president is in office. It shows how far we've come, and how far we still have to go. And that's why the President's remarks were so important and so necessary.
Obama ended his speech by saying we've gotten better about race relations:
I don't want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn't mean we're in a post-racial society. It doesn't mean that racism is eliminated. But when I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I seem them interact, they're better than we are -- they're better than we were -- on these issues. And that's true in every community that I've visited all across the country.
Let's hope so.
Watch the President's statement in full:
Do you think Obama should have spoke out at such length about the case? Why or why not?
Image via the White House/YouTube