US President Barack Obama unveils a series of proposals to counter gun violence as Vice President Joe Biden looks on during an event at the White House in Washington, January 16, 2013. (REUTERS/Larry Downing)
President Obama’s decision to speak frankly, and extensively, about a Florida jury’s acquittal of George Zimmerman, and about the array of issues that have arisen since Zimmerman shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, was broadly significant. Only rarely does an American president step so directly and so intentionally into so charged a debate, and even more rarely does a president do so in such personal terms.
“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son,” the president explained Friday. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
That was the headline statement.
But the president did not make his unexpected appearance Friday to talk about himself. He was talking issues—specific issues—and explaining why they matter.
It was a teaching moment. And Obama used it well:
(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.
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. 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 happens 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. That happens often.
And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear. The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is 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.
Obama got specific, especially with regard to the “stand your ground” laws that have come into focus since Trayvon Martin’s killing. And his remarks, coming at a critical point in the development of the debate about those laws and of the national movement to overturn them, will sustain and encourage those who argue, as The Seattle Times has, that “the single best memorial to Trayvon Martin—Justice for Trayvon—is repeal of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.”