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Obama confronts race in America

| Friday, July 19, 2013, 9:18 p.m.
President Obama becomes emotional on Friday, July 19, 2013, while discussing the Trayvon Martin case during the daily news briefing in the White House in Washington.
President Obama becomes emotional on Friday, July 19, 2013, while discussing the Trayvon Martin case during the daily news briefing in the White House in Washington.

President Obama implored Americans on Friday to “do some soul searching” about the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in Florida, speaking expansively and introspectively about the nation's painful history of race and his own place in it.

Directly wading into the polarizing debate over last weekend's acquittal of George Zimmerman in the February 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, Obama tried to explain the case through the lens of past discrimination that still weighs heavily on blacks.

The nation's first black president, recognizing the disconnect between how whites and blacks were reacting to the Zimmerman verdict, sought to explain why the acquittal had upset so many blacks.

“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 doesn't go away,” Obama said.

Obama inserted himself into the controversy surrounding Martin's killing in March 2012, when he said from the Rose Garden, “If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon.” On Friday, he recalled that statement and added, “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago.”

Obama's 18 minutes of remarks, delivered extemporaneously during a surprise afternoon appearance in the White House briefing room, was the most extended discussion of race in his presidency. He has generally avoided talking about race relations, although he delivered a memorable speech on the topic during the 2008 campaign and wrote about his experiences with discrimination in his memoir, “Dreams from My Father.”

With the Justice Department reviewing the case and weighing bringing federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman, Obama offered no opinion on the verdict.

Obama followed reaction to the trial all week, talking about it with family and friends, a senior administration official said. He summoned top aides on Thursday to tell them he wanted to comment publicly on Martin's death and the discrimination he has felt personally.

Obama wanted to “speak from the heart,” the official said, explaining why he opted against reading from a prepared script. He spoke in a hushed and at times halting voice, pausing periodically to compose his thoughts.

“Where do we take this?” he asked. “How do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction? ... Beyond protests or vigils, the question is, are there some concrete things that we might be able to do?”

Obama said he and his wife, Michelle, have talked a lot about ways to “bolster and reinforce our African-American boys.” There is more that can be done, he said, to give black children a sense that they are a “full part of this society” and that the country is willing to invest in helping them succeed.

Obama spoke with preparations under way for a weekend of remembrance for Martin. The Rev. Al Sharpton is organizing “Justice for Trayvon” events in 130 cities on Saturday. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, has declared Sunday a “Statewide Day of Prayer for Unity,” while protesters hunkered down to spend the weekend in the State Capitol in Tallahassee.

Martin's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, said that they were “deeply honored and moved” by Obama's remarks.

“President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him,” they said in a joint statement. “This is a beautiful tribute to our boy. Trayvon's life was cut short, but we hope that his legacy will make our communities a better place for generations to come.”

Robert Zimmerman Jr., Zimmerman's brother, said on Fox News that he was glad Obama “spoke out today. ... I think he was very sincere in his remarks.”

Obama called in his address for an examination of “stand your ground” laws like the one in Florida that allow individuals to use deadly force to defend themselves. And he sounded some hopeful notes, pointing to his two young daughters as evidence that successive generations have made progress in changing racial attitudes.

“It doesn't mean that we're in a post-racial 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. And that's true in every community that I've visited all across the country.”

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