WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama kept his own counsel after the six women deciding whether George Zimmerman deserved prison time for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin delivered their verdict, releasing just a written statement appealing for calm the day after the ex-neighborhood watchman had been cleared of all charges.
But the president was quietly keeping tabs on the country’s response to the outcome of the racially charged trial, particularly in the black community. He discussed it with his family. He was ready to address it during a series of interviews with Spanish-language TV stations earlier in the week, if asked. He wasn’t.
By last Thursday, aides said, Obama was telling top advisers the country needed to hear from him, not in a way the White House would script it but in a frank discussion of his views and experiences as a black man in America.
On Friday, he stepped up to the podium in the White House briefing room and delivered a rare and extensive reflection on race by a president who has shied away from the issue even as he is constantly dogged by it.
“When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son,” Obama said. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
For Obama, the product of black-white parentage, who has written about his own struggles with racial identity but has kept the subject at arm’s length in office, his remarks represented an unusual embrace of his standing as the nation’s first black president and of the longing by many black Americans for him to give voice to their experiences.
“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,”he said.
“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,” Obama said.
Despite the emotional aspect to his comments, Obama appeared to signal that the Justice Department is unlikely to charge Zimmerman with violating Trayvon’s civil rights, despite intense pressure to do so from the NAACP and others. An NAACP petition urging the department to charge Zimmerman has collected more than 1.5 million signatures.
Obama said people should have “some clear expectations” about any Justice Department action because issues regarding the criminal code traditionally “are issues of state and local government.”
Obama, too, had been under pressure from civil rights leaders and others to speak out but he resisted doing so until Friday. His only comment on the verdict was the paper statement issued Sunday calling Trayvon’s death a tragedy for the country and urging the public to heed the “call for calm reflection” from the boy’s grieving parents.
Even as the president urged the public to accept the verdict – “once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works’ – he gave voice to the feelings of those who were angered by the decision.
Obama said there’s 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.”
He said he was considering a number of steps, including law enforcement training, examining state and local “stand your ground” laws to see if they encourage the kinds of confrontations that ended with Trayvon’s death and how to give black boys “the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them.”
He also called on the country to search its soul.
Obama said Trayvon’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, had shown incredible grace and dignity throughout. He did not mention the feelings of Zimmerman, who, relatives say, has been threatened with death.
Trayvon’s parents released a statement calling Obama’s comments “a beautiful tribute to our boy.”
Zimmerman’s brother, Robert, also welcomed the president’s remarks. He told Fox News “the American people need to have some time to digest what really happened and to do that soul-searching the president spoke of.”
Obama last spoke about race in substantive and personal terms as a presidential candidate in 2008, when he addressed criticism over comments by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
In 2009, Obama stumbled when commenting on the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates in the professor’s home, saying the police “acted stupidly.” He was forced to retract his comment, then held an awkward “beer summit” at the White House with Gates and the white arresting officer.
But, on Friday, Obama spoke poignantly about public distrust of many black men, including him before he became well-known, saying they draw nervous stares on elevators and hear car locks clicking when they walk by.
He sought to end on a more positive note, saying the U.S. gets better with each passing generation, despite lingering racial discord. He sees the progress when listening to his daughters and watching them with their friends.
“They’re better than we were on these issues,” Obama said. “We’re becoming a more perfect union. Not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.”
AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.