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: