President Barack Obama has said that “Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago”, in his first comments on the case since last week’s verdict. The unarmed black 17-year-old was shot and killed in Florida in February 2012.
George Zimmerman, 29, said he opened fire on the teenager in self-defence and was acquitted of murder by a Florida court last week.
In an unexpected press call, Mr Obama said very few black men in the US had not experienced racial profiling.
Barack Obama might be America’s first black president, but it’s rare for him to address the issue of race head-on like this. This was the first time he’d spoken publicly about the Trayvon Martin case since the jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of murder.
The president didn’t pass comment on their decision, but said he wanted to add context to the issue of race. He said many African Americans viewed the trial through a set of history and experiences that don’t go away, and that black men in particular are used to being feared, and treated differently under the law.
What was so striking was how personal he got when it came to sharing his own experiences of discrimination.
Some people have criticised Barack Obama for not being “racial” enough and this speech will certainly appease those who feel he hasn’t addressed race adequately during his time in office. But there are some who will be angered the president chose to discuss the issue right now. For some, Trayvon Martin’s death was not about race but about a confrontation between two men, which ended tragically.
Mr Obama said the pain that African-Americans felt around the case came from the fact that they viewed it through “a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away”.
He said African Americans were also keenly aware of racial disparities in the application of criminal laws.
“That all contributes 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,” Mr Obama said.
“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.”
He shared his experiences of being racially profiled in the past, such as being followed while out shopping.
“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.
“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 has a chance to get off,” he said.
Mr Obama also hailed the “incredible grace and dignity” of Trayvon Martin’s parents – Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton – in the way they reacted to the verdict.
Calling for “soul-searching” from Americans on issues of race, he also sounded a hopeful note, saying that race relations were improving with each generation.
Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton later issued a statement saying they were “deeply honoured and moved” by President Obama’s comments.
“President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him. This is a beautiful tribute to our boy,” they said.
Source: BBC News