Full Remarks: Obama speaks on race
July 19th, 2013
02:23 PM ET
5 years ago

Full Remarks: Obama speaks on race

(CNN) - President Barack Obama made a previously unscheduled appearance Friday at the White House to make comments about the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. Below in a transcript of his remarks.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I wanted to come out here, first of all, to tell you that Jay is prepared for all your questions, and is very much looking forward to the session.

Second thing is, I want to let you know that over the next couple of weeks, there are going to obviously be a whole range of issues - immigration, economics, et cetera. We'll try to arrange a fuller press conference to address your questions.

The reason I actually wanted to come out today is not to take questions, but to speak to an issue that's obviously gotten a lot of attention over the course of the last week, the issue of the Trayvon Martin ruling.

I gave a preliminary statement right after the ruling on Sunday, but watching the debate over the course of the last week, I thought it might be useful for me to expand on my thoughts a little bit.

First of all, I want to make sure that once again I send my thought and prayers, as well as Michelle's, to the family of Trayvon Martin, and to remark on the incredible grace and dignity with which they've dealt with the entire situation. I can only imagine what they're going through and it's remarkable how they've handled it.

The second thing I want to say is to reiterate what I said on Sunday, which is there are going to be a lot of arguments about the legal - the legal issues in the case. I'll let all the legal analysts and talking heads address those issues.

The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries (sic) were properly instructed that in a - in a case such as this, reasonable doubt was relevant. And they rendered a verdict.

And once the jury's spoken, that's how our system works.

But I did want to just talk a little bit about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling.

You know, 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.

And 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 - and a history that - 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 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.

And, you know, I - 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 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're disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It's not to make excuses for that fact.

Although, black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context. They 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.

And so, the fact that sometimes that's unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And the fact that a lot of Africa-American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuses 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.

I think the African-American community is also not naive in understanding that, statistically, somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably, statistically, more likely to be shot by a peer than he was
by somebody else.

So - so folks understand the challenges that exist for African-American boys. But they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there's no context for it, or - and that context is being denied. And - and that all contributes, I think, to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.

Now, the question, for me, at least, and - and I think for a lot of folks is, "Where do we take this? How - how do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction?"

You know, I think it's understandable that there have been demonstrations and vigils and protests and some of that is just going to have to work its way through as long as it remains nonviolent. If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family.

But beyond protests or vigils, the question is: Are there some concrete things that we might be able to do? I know that Eric Holder is reviewing what happened down there, but I think it's important for people to have some clear expectations here. Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government. The criminal code and law enforcement is traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.

That doesn't mean, though, that as a nation, we can't do some things that I think would be productive. So let me just give a couple of specifics that I'm still bouncing around with my staff, you know, so we're not rolling out some five-point plan, but some areas where I think all of us could potentially focus.

Number one, precisely because law enforcement is often determined at the state and local level, I think it would be productive for the Justice Department, governors, mayors to work with law enforcement about training at the state and local levels in order to reduce the kind of mistrust in the system that sometimes currently exists.

You know, when I was in Illinois, I passed racial profiling legislation, and it actually did just two simple things. One, it collected data on traffic stops and the race of the person who was stopped, but the other things was it resourced us training police departments across the state on how to think about potential racial bias, and ways to further professionalize what they were doing.

And, initially, the police departments across the state were resistant, but actually they came to recognize that if it was done in a fair, straightforward way that, it would allow them to do their jobs better and communities would have more confidence in them, and in turn be more helpful in - in applying the law. And, obviously, law enforcement's got a very tough job.

So that's one area where I think there are a lot of resources and best practices that could be brought to bear, if state and local governments are receptive, and I think a lot of them would be. And let's figure out, are there ways for us to push out that kind of training.

Along the same lines, I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and - and local laws to see if it - if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than diffuse potential altercations.

I know that there's been commentary about the fact that the "Stand Your Ground" laws in Florida were not used as a defense in the case.

On the other hand, 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?

And for those who - who resist that idea, that we should think about something like these Stand Your Ground laws, I just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.

Number three - and this is a long-term project - we need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys? And this is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about. There are a lot of kids out there who need help, who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. 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?

You know, I'm not naive about the prospects of some grand new federal program. I'm not sure that that's what we're talking about here. But I - I do recognize that, as president, I've got some convening power. And there are a lot of good programs that are being done across the country on this front. And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes and figure out, how are we doing a better job helping young African-American men feel that they're a full part of this society and that - and that they've got pathways and avenues to succeed? You know, I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was, obviously, a tragic situation. And we're going to spend some time working on that and thinking about that.

And then, finally, I think it's going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. You know, there's been talk about, should we convene a conversation on race? I haven't seen that be particularly productive when, you know, politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.

On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there's a possibility that people are a little bit more honest and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.

And let me just leave you with - with the final thought that, as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, 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 we're in a post-racial 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. And that's true in every community that I've visited all across the country. And so, you know, we have to be vigilant. And we have to work on these issues. And those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our - nature as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions.

But we should also have confidence that kids these days, I think, have more sense than we did back then and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did, and that along this long and difficult journey, you know, we're becoming a more perfect union, not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.

All right?

Thank you, guys.

Filed under: President Obama
soundoff (53 Responses)
  1. Really?

    So Obama could have been a wannabe gangster who smoked weed, did other drugs, posed with guns, got in fights, and ultimately got in a fight with a guy with a gun (and lost)?

    July 19, 2013 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  2. michael

    I think the President brought the point home! If, conservatives and concealing gun lovers do not understand what he is saying due to their polarized view; maybe, they would understand, if every white teens are now followed by black and brown men, shot killed, then use stand your ground as a defense to getaway with the murder! This would me horrifying and shocking. But, judicial decisions like these will open the doors to more of this violence! Because no one took Travon Martins side, tried to understand his fear, or his right to protect himself! George Zimmermans sold his view, which could have been thought out, planned, just in case of eventual death in a confrontation. Many have deceived, manipulated, and fleeced the jurors into making wrong decisions. What, if O J Simpson would have said, he was threatened, cut by his wife used stand your ground as a defense. White people would have been appalled at the thought that he got away. Well, most white despite of the courts decision of not guilty think that was an unjustice decision vehemently! The O J verdict should have been received as justice, if the Travon decision is justice! Stop the hypocriscy!

    July 19, 2013 02:43 pm at 2:43 pm |
  3. Anonymous

    this is disgusting

    July 19, 2013 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
  4. Bill from GA

    Our President compares his experience s to Trayvon Martin's.
    I wonder if President Obama has read the transcripts from Martin's cell phone.

    July 19, 2013 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  5. Immigrant

    Unfortunately, its reality of a nation that preaches the whole world on equality and democracy still struggles with racism.

    If we bring this down to most granular level, that is between you and me!! We really don't need racism for anything 'name it'!!

    Look at the countries where people live in fear and terrible traditions. God has blessed this country with lot of good values. We just don't need to misuse them.

    God be with America – as it has since the beginning.

    July 19, 2013 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  6. Rebecca

    At moments like these, I am so glad our president can directly relate and move this experience forward to some practical resolutions. We the people!

    July 19, 2013 02:48 pm at 2:48 pm |
  7. paul

    Americans are aware of the racial disparity in our criminal laws????? Americans are actually aware of the racial disparity in the amount of crime crime committed in violation of our laws!......Oh sorry we're not supposed to speak of that since these individuals were driven to a life of crime by decades of oppression and therefore are not expected to be held accountable. My bad.

    July 19, 2013 02:49 pm at 2:49 pm |
  8. Elizabeth

    This is why I love this man. He may not have accomplished everything I have wanted him to do, but he is clearly doing the best he can.

    July 19, 2013 02:51 pm at 2:51 pm |
  9. Really?

    Really, Mr. President? All of the worries you have on your shoulders: wars, immigration, drugs, our countries finances, etc. and you take the time out of your schedule to comment on this. Shame on You! Black communities do not need another federal program. They need mothers and fathers who are invested in their communities and their children. They need to follow the rules and the laws of the land just like everybody else. We are in this predicament because we keep explaining away bad behavior based on a "history". Parents need to be held responsible for the children they are making – plain and simple. You want to stop getting racially profiled? Then change your history – because history both past and present tells me that I am most likely in danger if a group of young black men are approaching me or getting on an elevator with me...It really is a two way street.

    July 19, 2013 02:52 pm at 2:52 pm |
  10. Karen Jones

    No one could have said it better. Very graceful, and sincerel Thank you, Mr. President!

    July 19, 2013 02:52 pm at 2:52 pm |
  11. general tso

    Meanwhile, almost 4 years have passed since 13 service members were killed, and another 32 wounded by a radical Muslim who just happened to be an officer in the US Army. Our president obviously doesn't feel that their lives deserve the attention that one black teenager of dubious character does. Where is the outrage about their deaths (while serving our country)? Where is the media attention? Why didn't Mr. Obama say that if he had a son, he would look like one of those fallen soldiers? What a joke.

    July 19, 2013 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  12. stacy100

    Wow! Wow! Obama should keep his mouth shout. If forgets that he is also the president of white/mexican/asian/etc. people in this country. Most of the crime where I live happens in black neighborhoods...black on black. Don't blame me when I look my door when a black man walks past my car.....because I do it when white men walk past my car too.

    July 19, 2013 02:55 pm at 2:55 pm |
  13. Khuma Pokhrel

    This President is a racist president, why he did not say a black young men kills another men every day and he does not give that examle saying he could be his son or 35 years ago he could be that. Why he forgets most of 85% crime is involved by Black guys, thats why people lock their car, keep purse tight all those thing. First ask your black guys to be more civilized then blame to other.

    July 19, 2013 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  14. Ed1

    Just look at the facts if it could have been you 35 years ago you wouldn't be here today.

    In Florida more Blacks were acquitted with the stand you ground law than whites per percentage.

    Mr. Obama it has already been proven by the FBI that there was no racial bias in this case so why doe we keep hearing about it you, Holder, Al, and Jackson just keeps up the racial split in this Country that is brought on by people that don't know what they are talking about.

    Mr. Obama you are half White and half Black and all I hear about is the Black side nothing to be said about the White side.

    I wish all of you would stop trying to divide this once Great Country and focus on what needs to be done for everyone.

    You might want to try and invite Zimmerman and Williams parents up for a beer like you have done before.

    July 19, 2013 02:57 pm at 2:57 pm |
  15. RonnieGardocki

    Do you think he'd approve of his daughters dating Trayvon?

    July 19, 2013 02:57 pm at 2:57 pm |
  16. deano bravo

    Did the president really just intterupt America for this? Jeez, chalk him up with the other race mongers like Jesse and Al. At least jessie and Al dont try to hide their stripes, Barak Hussein Obama has tried to hide his for a while now. But thanks Barry for showing us your true colors...LOL, i always knew you had it in ya!

    July 19, 2013 02:57 pm at 2:57 pm |
  17. johntheprinter

    Remember how "WHITE PEOPLE" rioted after OJ"s acquitted? ME NEITHER!

    July 19, 2013 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  18. "An American tradgedy"...

    How and the way the MEDIA together with self-interest grougs are adding to the already volatile mind-set
    concerning this "American Tradegy" is shameful...

    What America desperately needs now is somebody the likes of Nelson Mandela to soothe the Nation by calling
    upon groups of Leaders from all stripes to start a process of Reconciliation.....!

    "Lets remember that Hate and Revenge adds to self-destruct"....!

    July 19, 2013 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  19. donna rochester

    A very intelligent, thoughtful and wise message. What a blessing to have someone of Obama's stature in office. Let us hope and work towards better understanding between races, more tolerance, less fear and the belief that we are our brother's keepers.

    July 19, 2013 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  20. wedjr

    Very well said Mr. President. Hopefully, those who read and reply will examine the content of your remarks instead of taking a defensive posture that questions whether the behaviors you spoke of are justified. Context and perspective matters and as a simple rule, oppressive actions are never warranted.

    July 19, 2013 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  21. BobbaFett

    I'm so sick of this.

    July 19, 2013 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  22. johntheprinter

    What "IF" Zimmerman had been a plain clothes policeman when Martin sucker punched him? Couldn't Martin have just answered and told what he was doing there when Zmmerman asked him? Why didn't Martin just call 911 and told them someone was folllowing him? Thats what we should be teaching our young for we don't know who the person is or what is their authority.

    July 19, 2013 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  23. Ian

    Look, I don't even like Obama and minus the Eric Holder nonsense – I thought this was very well said.

    July 19, 2013 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  24. Don. Moore

    He should keep out this,and not side with N.A.A.C.P,and other racial leaders or so called preachers, like Al and Jessie.The Jury has spoken. Get over it.

    July 19, 2013 03:08 pm at 3:08 pm |
  25. stevenkane

    I did not watch or even read President Obama's remarks but I think making more of this than it was is not good for our nation. We do not need to beat this subject into the ground...it happened the trial is over, and the judicial system worked.

    My only opinion regarding Zimerman is he did a stupid thing by getting out of his car.I nor the majority our nation knows what happened..,but the defense accounting did run parallel with the timeline. Making this out as a racial thing is only going to lead us down a dark road. Blacks can't it both ways either-you can't riot or make yourself into a stereotype because this is how this comes up as a subject.–and Zimmerman needs to publicly admit what he did was STUPID when he got out of his car.-this is what we have police for . No one is going to happy ever when folks debate this very tragic situation. My feelings are with his mother nd father. Those folks were very classy I think and hopefully Trevon will be remembered by those who matter as a good kid. End of story.

    July 19, 2013 03:09 pm at 3:09 pm |
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