19 Jul 2013

Obama: Trayvon Martin could have been me

In a surprise speech at the White House, Barack Obama makes the most personal comments on race of his presidency, saying that Trayvon Martin “could have been me”.

President Obama, said his spokesman, simply had something to say – and came out to say it. In a deeply personal statement that took the White House press corps by complete surprise, the president spoke about the killing of 17 year old Trayvon Martin, and his own experience as a black man in America.

“Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago”, he said, declaring that there were very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of being racially profiled, “and that includes me”.

Historical context, and past discrimination, he said, affected everything. “It’s important to recognise 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 if Trayvon Martin had been a white teenager – things might have looked very different, but said the attitudes of the next generation were “better than we were”, offering hope. “We’re becoming a more perfect union, not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.”

The president spoke directly to camera, without taking questions, for more than 15 minutes (see video below). After George Zimmerman was acquitted of Trayvon’s murder by a Florida court, he said his administration was deciding where to go next.

Plans under consideration include race training for law enforcement officials, as well as looking at the controversial “stand your ground” laws to see if they encourage confrontations rather than defuse them.

All Americans, he said, should “do some soul searching” about their own racial bias and ask themselves honestly if they were doing everything they could to overcome any inherent prejudice.

Deeply personal

It is already being hailed as the most personal statement on race Obama has made during his presidency. Reporters, who had received no advance notice of the remarks, rushed to interpret the reaction.

George Zimmerman’s brother Robert Zimmerman appeared on Fox News within moments of the president’s announcement, saying: “I’m glad he spoke out today.”

He said the president had been “very sincere in his remarks”, and said that the whole country needed to move beyond race in its response, if anything similar happened again.

The president’s speech, unannounced and unrehearsed, could well turn out to be a crucial turning point in America’s national conversation about race.

It was certainly an extraordinary moment for the president himself, who spoke not just about the Zimmerman verdict, but his own feelings and the future of post-racial America. The journey to a more perfect union begins here.

Felicity Spector writes about US affairs for Channel 4 News