Friday, July 19, 2013

Obama addresses Zimmerman verdict and nation's troubled racial history

Posted By on 07.19.13 at 04:03 PM

State and local laws that may lead to the kind of tragedy that happened in Florida ought to be reconsidered, the president said.
  • AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
  • State and local laws that may lead to the kind of tragedy that happened in Florida ought to be reconsidered, the president 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," President Obama said in an unscheduled address at the White House this afternoon. "That includes me. And 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 happened 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."

"Those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida," the president said. "And it's inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear."

Obama was addressing the reaction of blacks to the acquittal Saturday of George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting in Florida last year of Trayvon Martin, the African-American 17-year-old.

The president said African-Americans were well aware of "a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.

"Now, this isn't to say that the African-American community is naive about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence," Obama said. "It's not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context."

He said African-Americans realize that Trayvon "was probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else." But he added: "We understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history." It added to the frustration to have that history not acknowledged, he said. "And the fact that a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush, and the excuse is 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 differently—causes pain."

That history also contributed "to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario . . . both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different," he said.

The president called for better training of police to reduce racial bias, and a review of state and local laws that "may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than diffuse potential altercations."

"If we're sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms, even if there's a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we'd like to see?"

He also spoke of a need to "bolster and reinforce" African-American boys. "Is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?"

He encouraged Americans to "do some soul-searching"—to ask themselves "'Am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character?'"

Obama concluded: "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 that we're in a postracial society. It doesn't mean that racism is eliminated. But, you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they're better than we are. They're better than we were on these issues."

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