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In an unscheduled statement to the press Friday, President Barack Obama addressed the state of race relations in America, less than a week after George Zimmerman was acquitted Saturday on self defense grounds for killing the unarmed black 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, speaking with surprising personal detail on the subject.
Obama, who has been called on by African American leaders to spearhead a national conversation about race, instead spoke personally about the tragedy and the national controversy, calling for individuals to engage in soul searching instead of “stilted and politicized” conversations driven by elected officials. It was his most detailed address on race in America since his noted 2008 address following following media coverage of incendiary remarks by his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
In the aftermath of the shooting last year, Obama said that if he had a son he would look like Martin. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Obama said Friday. “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 probably 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.”
Obama said those experiences inform the African American community’s response to the shooting and to the subsequent court decision. “It’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear,” he said.
Speaking without notes, Obama detailed some ideas he is thinking about to help restore trust, from a look at state gun laws to anti-racial profiling legislation and talks between local community leaders and law enforcement. Returning to a frequent subject, Obama said he was thinking of ways to empower African American young men – a theme of his administration that has drawn criticism from the left.
“There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement,” Obama said. “And 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?”
Obama concluded with a look to the future, saying that his daughters’ generation is better than his own, as his was better than his parents’.
“It doesn’t mean that we’re in a postracial society,” Obama said. “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.”
“We’re becoming a more perfect union,” Obama concluded. “Not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.”
For a full transcript of Obama’s remarks, click here.