WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, in his first public comments about the verdict in the Trayvon Martin shooting death, delivered on Friday some of his most extensive and personal remarks on race since entering the White House as he described what it’s like to be a black man in America.
“When 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,” Obama said in an unscheduled appearance before reporters at the White House. “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.”
The president detailed how most African-American men, including himself, have been followed when shopping in department stores, heard the locks click on car doors when walking across the street and seen women clutch their purses nervously when getting on elevators.
“Those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida,” he said. “And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.”
Obama called on Americans to engage in “soul searching” as they ponder last Saturday’s acquittal of George Zimmerman, 29, who shot Martin, 17, as he was walking home through a gated community in February 2012, and what “concrete steps” they might take to prevent other such deaths.
The president made the surprise appearance at the daily White House news briefing to speak about a case that’s generated scattered demonstrations across the nation since the jury in Sanford, Fla., found Zimmerman not guilty. Zimmerman argued that he was defending himself.
The president said he and his staff were considering an examination of state and local laws, including so-called stand-your-ground laws, a type of self-defense measure in more than two dozen states, including Florida and Texas, that gives people the right to use reasonable force to defend themselves without requiring them to retreat from dangerous situations.
He also said he was considering asking federal, state and local officials to work with law enforcement on more training and pondering how to engage in a long-term project to prop up African-American boys.
He dismissed the prospect of a national conversation on race that he’d organize — former President Bill Clinton led one — saying that a dialogue would work better if it happened in homes, churches and workplaces.