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. Jason

    I grew up in a military family and I was brought up with multiracial friends...friends of every race. When my father got out of the military, it was then I was exposed to the harsh reality of racism. Some things I've witnessed:
    If a good white girl named Jane Smith wants to date a good Middle Eastern man named and her white dad disapproves...is that racist? If a good Middle Eastern girl wants to date a good white boy and her father disapproves...would that be considered "their culture"? Do you think it's more funny when black comedians make fun of white people? I do! I cry laughing sometimes. I laugh my butt off. But why does it make you twist in your seat to think of it the other way around? Do people realize that those workers in front of 7-11 looking for work aren't "Mexicans"? They're from Guatemala, El Salvador, Columbia...and yes...Mexico. The problem with racism is that everybody is too afraid to admit that they don't understand it. By the way, my roommate is black, my best friend is black and my girlfriend is a beautiful Mexican.

    July 19, 2013 03:11 pm at 3:11 pm |
  2. Anonymous

    No, this couldn't have been you. Your teenage years were filled with taking trips to Mars, and other secretive missions. Mr. Obama, you're not as nice as your rheteric implies.

    July 19, 2013 03:12 pm at 3:12 pm |
  3. just sayin

    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.

    seriously??? are you kidding me??? blaming vilolent black behavior today on the past??? talk about rationalization. if that is what he truly believes then ther eis literally no hope for black people. they will forever be victims in their mind. the chains around their legs have been replace by chains in their mind it seems. and obama is buyin ginto this idiocy and perpetuating it. thus condemnding future generations of blacks in america to a future that has been pre-ordained by what occurred well ove a hundred year ago.

    July 19, 2013 03:16 pm at 3:16 pm |
  4. Rick McDaniel

    This President just demonstrated himself to be the worst kind of racist.........as bad as ANY of the worst of the KKK!

    July 19, 2013 03:18 pm at 3:18 pm |
  5. Dominique

    People don't want to talk about race in this country because it forces you to look in the mirror! Addressing racism will allow the hypocrisy of this country to be seen by the world so everyone just wants to ignore it.

    July 19, 2013 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  6. Joi Gibson

    Bravo Mr. President, Bravo!!!!

    July 19, 2013 03:24 pm at 3:24 pm |
  7. Name

    Our president is a CLOWN! Hey it could've been me 21 years ago. It could've been anyone. Let it go and move on.

    July 19, 2013 03:27 pm at 3:27 pm |
  8. The Other Side of the Story

    Well Mr. President, let me give you another side to consider. EVERYBODY (white, black, hispanic, asian) is sick and tired of being attacked and victimized by black men in this country. Look at what is going on in Chicago and other large cities across this country. Black men are committing large numbers of crimes, and all too often against other black people. You refuse to accept reality in this situation just like you refuse to accept the fact that terrorism exists and it is Islamic radicals doing it.

    And now you wish to justify this criminal behavior by blaming it on the past. BALONEY! Stop making excuses for criminals and their criminal behavior. Zimmerman was correct and legally justified to defend his life against yet another violent attack by a black man. Or did you expect him to just lie there and be beat to death by Trayvon Maritin in the name of past black injustices?

    I wish I had never voted for you.

    July 19, 2013 03:28 pm at 3:28 pm |
  9. Musa Saka Ishola

    Although, it was tragic but the deed has been done. May soul rest in peace

    July 19, 2013 03:28 pm at 3:28 pm |
  10. Musa Saka Ishola

    Although, it was tragic but the deed has been done. May soul rest in peace. Kudos to Obama's speech.

    July 19, 2013 03:29 pm at 3:29 pm |
  11. JayShaun

    Wow, that transcript is a rambling mess of nothingness. And that's supposedly an area Obama knows a lot about. What a shame that such an unqualified man – never successful at anything before in his life – was elected President. Winning against a man who has run one successful company after another after another after another. What a shame.

    July 19, 2013 03:30 pm at 3:30 pm |
  12. simplyput

    Real cute how you censored the negatives, CNN...and there were alot of them. Nothing to see here, people. Nothing we don't already know. Where's the story about Benghazi survivors being forced to sign non-disclosure affidavits?

    July 19, 2013 03:30 pm at 3:30 pm |
  13. Yet another first for Obama

    Barack Hussein Obama is now officlaly our first race baiting President. Congratulations Sir. We suspected it all along with your appointment of Eric Holder but now you have absolutely confirmed it.

    July 19, 2013 03:30 pm at 3:30 pm |
  14. Jeffn

    This is what actually happened on that fateful night: George Zimmerman (wannabe cop) was out and about with a loaded gun. He sees this kid and assumes the kid must be a criminal because he is black and is wearing a hoodie. He approaches the kid and tries to restrain or him or make an arrest, the boy resists and fights back. George Zimmerman is losing the fight and pulls out his gun and shoots Trayvon Martin. Was a crime committed?

    July 19, 2013 03:32 pm at 3:32 pm |
  15. Ed1

    Again out President needs to focus on healing this once Great Country not dividing us like he has the past four and a half years.

    July 19, 2013 03:32 pm at 3:32 pm |
  16. Musa Saka Ishola

    Kudos to Obama's speech it is well articulated

    July 19, 2013 03:32 pm at 3:32 pm |
  17. Rudy NYC

    I wonder what the public reaction would have been had a white teenager went to visit a relative in predominantly black neigherborhood, only to be shot walking home for the store in the dark. A black man comes forward and admits to shooting the youth because the youth had attacked him.

    We later learn that the black man had earliler identified the white youth as a "suspect" in a recent string of crimes in the area. So, he phones his suspiciions in to the police, who later tell him not to follow the suspect. Somehow the two come fact to fact, a physical combat of some sort seem to have taken place, ending with the white youth dead with a bullet through his heart.

    The police show up, and they are several black officers. The interrogate the black man who shot the youth, take statements vboth written and visual, and let him go home.....as if nothing unusual had occurred. When later asked why the black man has not been charged with a crime, the black police officers report that they did not have enough evidence to charge the shooter with a crime. As if the body of a dead teenager isn't enough.

    I wonder what the public reaction would have been had the roles *and* the environment had been completely reversed.

    July 19, 2013 03:33 pm at 3:33 pm |
  18. Robert Camacho

    Thank you Mr. President.

    I am proud of you taking the first step, is up to ALL of US to stop this.

    This is our country and we have to treat each other with respect we deserve, it doesn't matter if we are Men or Women, Black, White, Latino, Asian, Gay or Straight.

    God Bless America and Namaste!

    July 19, 2013 03:33 pm at 3:33 pm |
  19. it must be said

    Well, this explains a LOT. We now know why those two New Black Panthers that stood in front of a polling place with a weapon were never prosecuted. It was all because they weren't doing anything wrong and all of us non-blacks just imagined they were threatening and intimidating. The problem was not them, it was US. Yes, this is all starting to make sense now.

    July 19, 2013 03:34 pm at 3:34 pm |
  20. Brandon

    Shoutout to Jason for his comment above. That's usually a common thing with military kids, especially when you have parents stationed over seas because you are exposed to different cultures. The problem with race in the country is no one wants to deal with it. Everyone wants to make ignorant comments with no reasons or facts to back them up. Everything Obama said was spot on, but because many people haven't experienced it themselves, they just turn it off. Like he said with the politicians, they are so set in their sides and their arguments, they are not trying to hear what anyone else has to say. That's most Americans... blacks and whites, although blacks have the tougher plight because of the negative stereotypes attached to them. Until we all can respect each other as people, be willing to listen, and respect the different cultures in America, we will continue to struggle.

    July 19, 2013 03:35 pm at 3:35 pm |
  21. Rudy NYC

    stevenkane wrote:

    ...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. ....
    No, it doesn't Of the roughly four minutes that elapsed between the "don't follow" call GZ made to 911 and the final 911 call with the screams and a gun shot, nearly four minutes have elapsed. Zimmerman's story doesn't account for at least two minutes out of that time span.

    July 19, 2013 03:37 pm at 3:37 pm |
  22. Silence DoGood

    @Dominique "People don't want to talk about race in this country.."

    I know it is terrible – no one wants to talk about race. No church meetings, no vigils, no marches, no presidential comments, no media coverage. Oh yeah, I forgot, there ARE all those things.

    July 19, 2013 03:40 pm at 3:40 pm |
  23. Sniffit

    "I wonder what the public reaction would have been had a white teenager went to visit a relative in predominantly black neigherborhood, only to be shot walking home for the store in the dark"

    Simple: because it was a black neighborhood, they would have questioned what he was doing there in the first place, assumed he was up to no good, accused him of being involved in drugs or gangs, labeled him as stupid for being there in the first place and said "well, what did he expect in THAT neighborhood" and then proceeded to judicially lynch the shooter.

    July 19, 2013 03:56 pm at 3:56 pm |
  24. Lars

    He left out the part about if you attack someone and pound their head into concrete they have a right to defend themselves with deadly force.

    July 19, 2013 04:07 pm at 4:07 pm |
  25. Larry in Houston

    no wonder why the majority of the people in this country constantly talks about the next national election – and cannot wait till 2016 – I mean, used to be : once a president was elected, ( in the past) you didn't hear about a constant crying, and rallying about the next presidential election. With this President, That's all this country has been doing, since 2012. Bottom Line : Obama should have kept his mouth shut . Well, let me put it this way : All Obama has to do now is : Go ahead & get on the horn, & call TM Mother & Dad over to the W.H. & have some type of "Social" with them. I mean he's already done the damage, so why don't he just invite them over, & have a Beer ? ( You know, like he's done in the past) WoW ! what a pathetic bunch of people in our high up offices ! Obama is the Chief Engineer, & Holder is the co-pilot. LOL

    July 19, 2013 04:08 pm at 4:08 pm |
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