TOPICS > Politics

Obama Gives Highly Personal Take on Trayvon Martin Death, Urges Soul-Searching

July 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
President Barack Obama offered some personal reflection about the ways persistent racial prejudices inform how African-Americans have reacted to the death of Trayvon Martin and the George Zimmerman trial. Jeffrey Brown gets perspective on his remarks from Jonathan Turley, Carol Swain, Leonard Pitts, Jr. and Michael Beschloss.
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RAY SUAREZ: The nation’s first black president came to the White House Briefing Room this afternoon, and took on the Trayvon Martin killing and race in America in highly personal terms.

He spoke a day before protests are planned nationwide over the acquittal of George Zimmerman in Martin’s death.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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 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.

And 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. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator.

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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 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 of 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 are 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.

And the fact that a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is 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.

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

Along the same lines, I think it would be useful for us to examine some state 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.

And for those 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, it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.

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?

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 that 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 have visited all across the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for some perspective the president’s comments, we’re joined by two guests who were part of a discussion on the Zimmerman verdict at the beginning of the week, Carol Swain, a professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt Law School, and Jonathan Turley of the George Washington University Law School. They are joined tonight by Leonard Pitts Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Miami Herald, and our own presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

And welcome to everybody.

Leonard Pitts, why don’t you start us off, if you would. Generally, what is your reaction to what the president said?

LEONARD PITTS JR., The Miami Herald: Generally, my reaction is, glory, hallelujah, and thank you that the president finally said it.

That said, I understand why he has not spoken on these issues so much before. Politically, it’s sort of a lose-lose situation for him. There is no political upside.

But, morally and socially, I believe and I think he came to the conclusion that as the nation’s first African-American president, there is no way that he could stand on the sidelines on this.

He had to, to speak to these issues, and he had to call the nation to account, not so much in terms of what happened legally in that courtroom in Florida, but in terms of the moral implications of it, in terms of this idea that seems to be bandied about that somehow it’s Trayvon Martin’s innocence or guilt that is in question, or that Mr. Zimmerman had every right to stalk Trayvon Martin because of perceived danger because of the color of his skin.

That needs to be called into account. And I thought the president did a pretty good job of doing so.

JEFFREY BROWN: Carol Swain, you were us earlier in the week, now the end of the week and after the president. What did you think?

CAROL SWAIN, Vanderbilt University: There were parts of his speech that I appreciated.

I appreciated the fact that he would actually have the conversation. But as far as the content, when he talks about racial profiling, yes, black men are followed and they are looked at more suspiciously. And I speak as a mother that’s raised two black males. They certainly were followed.

But, at the same time, what the president didn’t stress is the fact that it’s the crime rate and it’s the behavior of black youth that causes so many people discomfort, and not just white people, but black people as well.

We may remember a few years ago, when Jesse Jackson talked about being in black neighborhoods and hearing footsteps behind him and looking over and looking behind himself and seeing a white person and having more comfort.

So I think the president has not dealt adequately with the fact that there is a problem in the black community. The black community has to take some responsibility for addressing those problems. I think it’s time to have a national conversation on race that’s not politically correct, that allows all of us, white, black, brown, red, to get off our chest the things that are affecting our racial conversation.

We will never move ahead until blacks begin to take responsibility and whites begin to express their concerns.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Jonathan Turley, you talked on Monday about the perception of the American justice system, about the stand your ground. What do you think now after hearing the president?

JONATHAN TURLEY, George Washington University: Well, I think there was much in his remarks that were quite touching, quite moving.

The one thing the president can’t say is that I really can’t do anything about — but, in reality, that is the case. That is, you don’t — you know, neighbors have dialogues. You don’t have dialogues through plebiscites or politicians.

The fact is, we all know that we have improved, but that improvement, it has to move forward, occur on a micro level. And part of the problem I think you see here is how dangerous cases are to be narratives for a national debate.

We’re really having two different debates. You have one community that has a due process narrative and one community that has a race narrative. And they’re talking past each other. We’re not speaking of the same issues.

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet the president, Michael, stepped in, felt he had to come back at the end of the week and say something. How unusual — what struck you about this?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: Well, the first thing unusual about it, historians always look at a president and say, what is different?

And look how different it was that you had an African-American president talking about this issue, rather than, for instance, John Kennedy, who in 1963 was campaigning exactly 50 years ago for a civil rights bill, looked in the camera and said, who among us would like to have the color of his skin changed and live the life that African-Americans do, “us” presumably being a white difference.

That’s how different things were. Spring of ’68, Lyndon Johnson, after the death of Martin Luther King, called on black Americans and said essentially, don’t respond to this with violence. They quite rightly said you don’t have the standing to say that to us.

In contrast, President Obama today said that the way to dishonor Trayvon Martin’s legacy would be to respond with violence and also a political motive. And I think this comes — this coincides with what Jonathan said.

There has been a rising expectation in some quarters in the country that this verdict might be overwhelmed by federal action. It was probably even more after what Attorney General Holder said the other day. Sort of the diamond in the chandelier I think in the speech was, don’t expect that to happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Leonard Pitts, react to what you just heard around the table here, but also this question of the continuing conversation that the president was talking about, not necessarily national conversation, but some kind of conversation among people in their communities.

LEONARD PITTS JR.: Well, reacting to what I just heard, I think it’s rather facile to pretend that there’s this discussion about African-American overinvolvement, African-American male overinvolvement in the criminal justice system that we’re not having, and that these black kids are essentially running riot and we need to talk about that.

The fact of that matter is, according to every study I have seen, African-Americans are not necessarily more criminal than their counterparts. They are forwarded into the criminal justice system at a greater rate than their counterparts.

I would submit that when you have a situation where African-Americans account for, say, 15 percent of the nation’s drug crime, but in some jurisdictions, they account for 70, 80 and 90 percent of the people doing the nation’s drug time, that’s not a problem of African-Americans needing to take responsibility for themselves.

I don’t disagree that there are instances where African-Americans do need to take responsibility for themselves and the things that go on in their communities, but I think that it is entirely possible and, as a matter of fact, very frequently done that we oversell that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

LEONARD PITTS JR.: In terms of the conversation that needs to happen in this country, I think that we, as African-Americans, need to have a conversation about organizing and becoming frankly more activist than perhaps we have in recent years.

I think that our white sisters and brothers need to frankly take a little bit more ownership of understanding what’s going on in these communities, as opposed to …

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. No, I’m sorry. Go ahead.

LEONARD PITTS JR.: I’m sorry — need to take more ownership for knowing what’s going on in African-American communities, as opposed to just sort of relying on these abstracts and stereotypes and media-fed perceptions that seem to be the root of so much of the problem and disconnect.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me bring Carol Swain in to respond to that.

CAROL SWAIN: Well, first, I want to respond to the disparities around drug incarcerations.

And that goes back to the penalties that were different for crack cocaine vs. regular cocaine.

And if you look at the history of how we got tougher laws that affected blacks more than whites, initially, it was the Congressional Black Caucus that pushed for those tougher laws because of the devastating impact that crack cocaine was having in black communities.

And then later, over the years, it became all about race, that it was — that blacks were being treated differently because they use crack, but it was the black leaders that pushed for those laws. And I’m sure that President Obama would be familiar with that history.

And the conditions in the black community, we are not addressing those conditions.

And I believe that this whole — the rallies, the whole politicization of the Trayvon Martin death is a way to take people’s minds off the problems that are not being addressed certainly by the Democrats.

And I see activist leaders, I think they are stirring the pot. They are not telling the whole trouble — the whole story. And they have set up a situation where I think that there is likely to be more violence to ensue.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

CAROL SWAIN: And in the black community among teenagers, there’s been a lot of mob violence since the president’s been elected, where gangs of black teenagers attack a lone person, usually a white person, and it doesn’t get the news media coverage that it should.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

CAROL SWAIN: We ought to be talking about it. I think there’s been a worsening of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Jonathan Turley, where do you see — did you hear anything in what the president said about the legal case now or what happens next?

JONATHAN TURLEY: Well, I think that’s where I think critics will not be satisfied with the remarks, because he really didn’t address this due process narrative.

When he said, look, it could have come out differently if the races were switched, for those people who view the trial in more due process terms, the result was really preordained by the lack of evidence or at least how the prosecutors presented it and it wouldn’t have turned out differently from that perspective.

But, also, talking about stand your ground laws, that’s come up a lot. It came up with the president, but it had nothing to do with the trial. They didn’t use that law. This was a straight conventional self-defense case. And so, once again, you’re sort of left with, we’re not talking about the same subjects and we’re certainly not talking from the same perspectives.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Michael, you’re talking about the president sort of using the bully pulpit here that he has. Where does it go from here? Hard to say.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, I think probably one of the truest things he said was that it’s not too smart for politicians to expect to start national conversations, because they are political and they are oftentimes trivial.

What happens is an event. And just as you said, oftentimes an event starts a conversation on a subject that is larger or different from the one that the event concerned. In the late 1950s, Sputnik happened, started a national over whether we were doing enough to educate our children, especially in science and math?

That was not the reason why Sputnik happened, but it started a very good dialogue, and perhaps this can here as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Michael Beschloss, and Jonathan Turley here in Washington, Carol Swain, Leonard Pitts, thank you all very much.

LEONARD PITTS JR.: Thank you.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Sure.RAY SUAREZ: The nation’s first black president came to the White House Briefing Room this afternoon, and took on the Trayvon Martin killing and race in America in highly personal terms.

He spoke a day before protests are planned nationwide over the acquittal of George Zimmerman in Martin’s death.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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 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.

And 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. 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 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 of 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 are 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.

And the fact that a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is 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.

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

Along the same lines, I think it would be useful for us to examine some state 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.

And for those 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, it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.

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?

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 that 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 have visited all across the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for some perspective the president’s comments, we’re joined by two guests who were part of a discussion on the Zimmerman verdict at the beginning of the week, Carol Swain, a professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt Law School, and Jonathan Turley of the George Washington University Law School. They are joined tonight by Leonard Pitts Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Miami Herald, and our own presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

And welcome to everybody.

Leonard Pitts, why don’t you start us off, if you would. Generally, what is your reaction to what the president said?

LEONARD PITTS JR., The Miami Herald: Generally, my reaction is, glory, hallelujah, and thank you that the president finally said it.

That said, I understand why he has not spoken on these issues so much before. Politically, it’s sort of a lose-lose situation for him. There is no political upside.

But, morally and socially, I believe and I think he came to the conclusion that as the nation’s first African-American president, there is no way that he could stand on the sidelines on this.

He had to, to speak to these issues, and he had to call the nation to account, not so much in terms of what happened legally in that courtroom in Florida, but in terms of the moral implications of it, in terms of this idea that seems to be bandied about that somehow it’s Trayvon Martin’s innocence or guilt that is in question, or that Mr. Zimmerman had every right to stalk Trayvon Martin because of perceived danger because of the color of his skin.

That needs to be called into account. And I thought the president did a pretty good job of doing so.

JEFFREY BROWN: Carol Swain, you were us earlier in the week, now the end of the week and after the president. What did you think?

CAROL SWAIN, Vanderbilt University: There were parts of his speech that I appreciated.

I appreciated the fact that he would actually have the conversation. But as far as the content, when he talks about racial profiling, yes, black men are followed and they are looked at more suspiciously. And I speak as a mother that’s raised two black males. They certainly were followed.

But, at the same time, what the president didn’t stress is the fact that it’s the crime rate and it’s the behavior of black youth that causes so many people discomfort, and not just white people, but black people as well.

We may remember a few years ago, when Jesse Jackson talked about being in black neighborhoods and hearing footsteps behind him and looking over and looking behind himself and seeing a white person and having more comfort.

So I think the president has not dealt adequately with the fact that there is a problem in the black community. The black community has to take some responsibility for addressing those problems. I think it’s time to have a national conversation on race that’s not politically correct, that allows all of us, white, black, brown, red, to get off our chest the things that are affecting our racial conversation.

We will never move ahead until blacks begin to take responsibility and whites begin to express their concerns.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Jonathan Turley, you talked on Monday about the perception of the American justice system, about the stand your ground. What do you think now after hearing the president?

JONATHAN TURLEY, George Washington University: Well, I think there was much in his remarks that were quite touching, quite moving.

The one thing the president can’t say is that I really can’t do anything about — but, in reality, that is the case. That is, you don’t — you know, neighbors have dialogues. You don’t have dialogues through plebiscites or politicians.

The fact is, we all know that we have improved, but that improvement, it has to move forward, occur on a micro level. And part of the problem I think you see here is how dangerous cases are to be narratives for a national debate.

We’re really having two different debates. You have one community that has a due process narrative and one community that has a race narrative. And they’re talking past each other. We’re not speaking of the same issues.

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet the president, Michael, stepped in, felt he had to come back at the end of the week and say something. How unusual — what struck you about this?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: Well, the first thing unusual about it, historians always look at a president and say, what is different?

And look how different it was that you had an African-American president talking about this issue, rather than, for instance, John Kennedy, who in 1963 was campaigning exactly 50 years ago for a civil rights bill, looked in the camera and said, who among us would like to have the color of his skin changed and live the life that African-Americans do, “us” presumably being a white difference.

That’s how different things were. Spring of ’68, Lyndon Johnson, after the death of Martin Luther King, called on black Americans and said essentially, don’t respond to this with violence. They quite rightly said you don’t have the standing to say that to us.

In contrast, President Obama today said that the way to dishonor Trayvon Martin’s legacy would be to respond with violence and also a political motive. And I think this comes — this coincides with what Jonathan said.

There has been a rising expectation in some quarters in the country that this verdict might be overwhelmed by federal action. It was probably even more after what Attorney General Holder said the other day. Sort of the diamond in the chandelier I think in the speech was, don’t expect that to happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Leonard Pitts, react to what you just heard around the table here, but also this question of the continuing conversation that the president was talking about, not necessarily national conversation, but some kind of conversation among people in their communities.

LEONARD PITTS JR.: Well, reacting to what I just heard, I think it’s rather facile to pretend that there’s this discussion about African-American overinvolvement, African-American male overinvolvement in the criminal justice system that we’re not having, and that these black kids are essentially running riot and we need to talk about that.

The fact of that matter is, according to every study I have seen, African-Americans are not necessarily more criminal than their counterparts. They are forwarded into the criminal justice system at a greater rate than their counterparts.

I would submit that when you have a situation where African-Americans account for, say, 15 percent of the nation’s drug crime, but in some jurisdictions, they account for 70, 80 and 90 percent of the people doing the nation’s drug time, that’s not a problem of African-Americans needing to take responsibility for themselves.

I don’t disagree that there are instances where African-Americans do need to take responsibility for themselves and the things that go on in their communities, but I think that it is entirely possible and, as a matter of fact, very frequently done that we oversell that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

LEONARD PITTS JR.: In terms of the conversation that needs to happen in this country, I think that we, as African-Americans, need to have a conversation about organizing and becoming frankly more activist than perhaps we have in recent years.

I think that our white sisters and brothers need to frankly take a little bit more ownership of understanding what’s going on in these communities, as opposed to …

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. No, I’m sorry. Go ahead.

LEONARD PITTS JR.: I’m sorry — need to take more ownership for knowing what’s going on in African-American communities, as opposed to just sort of relying on these abstracts and stereotypes and media-fed perceptions that seem to be the root of so much of the problem and disconnect.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me bring Carol Swain in to respond to that.

CAROL SWAIN: Well, first, I want to respond to the disparities around drug incarcerations.

And that goes back to the penalties that were different for crack cocaine vs. regular cocaine.

And if you look at the history of how we got tougher laws that affected blacks more than whites, initially, it was the Congressional Black Caucus that pushed for those tougher laws because of the devastating impact that crack cocaine was having in black communities.

And then later, over the years, it became all about race, that it was — that blacks were being treated differently because they use crack, but it was the black leaders that pushed for those laws. And I’m sure that President Obama would be familiar with that history.

And the conditions in the black community, we are not addressing those conditions.

And I believe that this whole — the rallies, the whole politicization of the Trayvon Martin death is a way to take people’s minds off the problems that are not being addressed certainly by the Democrats.

And I see activist leaders, I think they are stirring the pot. They are not telling the whole trouble — the whole story. And they have set up a situation where I think that there is likely to be more violence to ensue.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

CAROL SWAIN: And in the black community among teenagers, there’s been a lot of mob violence since the president’s been elected, where gangs of black teenagers attack a lone person, usually a white person, and it doesn’t get the news media coverage that it should.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

CAROL SWAIN: We ought to be talking about it. I think there’s been a worsening of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Jonathan Turley, where do you see — did you hear anything in what the president said about the legal case now or what happens next?

JONATHAN TURLEY: Well, I think that’s where I think critics will not be satisfied with the remarks, because he really didn’t address this due process narrative.

When he said, look, it could have come out differently if the races were switched, for those people who view the trial in more due process terms, the result was really preordained by the lack of evidence or at least how the prosecutors presented it and it wouldn’t have turned out differently from that perspective.

But, also, talking about stand your ground laws, that’s come up a lot. It came up with the president, but it had nothing to do with the trial. They didn’t use that law. This was a straight conventional self-defense case. And so, once again, you’re sort of left with, we’re not talking about the same subjects and we’re certainly not talking from the same perspectives.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Michael, you’re talking about the president sort of using the bully pulpit here that he has. Where does it go from here? Hard to say.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, I think probably one of the truest things he said was that it’s not too smart for politicians to expect to start national conversations, because they are political and they are oftentimes trivial.

What happens is an event. And just as you said, oftentimes an event starts a conversation on a subject that is larger or different from the one that the event concerned. In the late 1950s, Sputnik happened, started a national over whether we were doing enough to educate our children, especially in science and math?

That was not the reason why Sputnik happened, but it started a very good dialogue, and perhaps this can here as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Michael Beschloss, and Jonathan Turley here in Washington, Carol Swain, Leonard Pitts, thank you all very much.

LEONARD PITTS JR.: Thank you.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Sure.