President Obama: 'Trayvon Martin Could've Been Me 35 Years Ago'

Jaylen Reese, 12, of Atlanta, marches to downtown during a protest of George Zimmerman's not guilty verdict in the 2012 shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin, Monday, July 15, 2013, in Atlanta. (National Journal)

President Obama made a surprise visit to the White House press room on Friday to speak about the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin case, making some of the boldest and most open remarks about race of his presidency. You can read the full remarks here.

While the president began by commending the judge in the case as "professional" and the jurors as "properly instructed," he also spoke of the case within the much broader context of race in America.

When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said, This could've been my son. Another way of saying that is, Trayvon Martin could've 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.

That history, Obama said, is especially salient to black men. "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," he said. The same goes for African-American men who have heard "locks click on the doors of cars," or seen a woman in an elevator "clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off."

A 2008 Wall Street Journal story, flagged Friday by the reporter Katie Rosman, actually attests to Obama's experience with this type of stereotyping. As Rosman reported, then-state Sen. Barack Obama was mistaken for a waiter at a New York party in 2003.

And those experiences of daily life are a reflection of what the president acknowledged as "a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — from the death penalty to drug laws. He continued (with our emphasis):

Folks understand the challenges that exist for African-American boys. 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.

The president's comments also looked at the real problems of "poverty and dysfunction" in African-American communities, saying they can "be traced to a very difficult history." As he said, young African-American men are disproportionately "both the victims and perpetrators of violence," and Trayvon was "statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else." But that's no excuse for unequal treatment.

The fact that a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuses given — "Well, there are these statistics out there that show that African-American boys are more violent," using that as an excuse to then see sons treated different causes pain.

To combat these broad social issues, Obama offered three broad suggestions:

1. Get the Justice Department involved with training local governments to reduce mistrust in the legal system. (It's worth remembering that this episode began with an outcry that Zimmerman wasn't arrested at all after the incident.)

2. Examine local laws — such as "Stand Your Ground" — and see if they "may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case rather than diffuse potential altercations."

3. Think about ways to bolster and support African-American boys so they do not get caught up in the legal system (as the statistics indicate they are more likely to be).

Even despite the discriminatory experiences Obama described, African-Americans perceive less discrimination in some areas today than they did 10 and 20 years ago, according to the results of a new Gallup survey. A shrinking share of blacks blame discrimination for black-white disparities in jobs, income, and housing.

In 1993, for example, 44 percent of blacks said discrimination was mostly to blame for those disparities, while 37 percent say so today. Non-Hispanic whites exhibited a similar shift: 15 percent say discrimination is mostly to blame for the disparities, down from 21 percent two decades ago. Overall, one in five adults today say the disparities are mostly due to discrimination. Older blacks tend to perceive more discrimination than younger blacks, with 47 percent of those 55 and older saying discrimination is mostly to blame for the disparities, compared with 30 percent of those aged 18 to 34.

Obama did offer some hope, citing progress among the youngest generation — including his daughters and their views on 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," Obama said. "They're better than we were on these issues."

The president's comments were not only surprising because of their content, but also because of the circumstances. The White House gave only a few seconds' notice to reporters before the president entered the briefing room — a rarity for the White House press corps.

Obama's comments Friday were the most he has spoken on race in America as president, and the most in-depth and personal since his remarks in Philadelphia during the 2008 campaign. Those remarks were largely pegged to the controversy surrounding Obama's relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

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