In starkly personal terms, President Barack Obama talked about his experience as a black man in America on Friday and called on the country to do some “soul searching” about race in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s shooting death and George Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict.
“Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Obama said, mentioning the racial profiling blacks deal with, including his experience before he was an Illinois state senator.
Obama, who made sure to mention the persistent trouble of black-on-black crime, also called for an examination of Stand Your Ground self-defense laws, such as Florida’s, which played a role in the Zimmerman case.
But Florida Gov. Rick Scott said he appointed a bipartisan Stand Your Ground task force last year and he stands by its recommendations to keep the law largely intact.
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Critics said the 17-member task force — appointed in April 2012 — was stacked in favor of the law, which expands the use of deadly force in some confrontations.
“I don’t support changing Stand Your Ground,” Scott said of the law. “We are in a 42-year-low in our crime rate.”
The Florida Republicans who control the Legislature also want to keep Stand Your Ground. And a Quinnipiac poll last year and a separate Miami Herald poll found Florida voters supported the law by anywhere from 56 to 65 percent.
“This death shouldn’t be politicized,” Scott said during a visit to Miami on Friday.
When asked if he thought Obama was politicizing the issue, Scott did not respond with a yes or no.
“What we ought to be doing is mourning the loss of a young man,” the governor said. “We ought to be doing what we’re going to be doing on Sunday. We ought to be praying about how we bring out state back together. We ought to be praying for unity.”
Scott called for a day of prayer Sunday and said he was supported by Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mother, with whom he spoke on Thursday.
On Friday, Fulton and Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, issued a statement that praised Obama but didn’t mention Scott.
The parents said they were “deeply honored and moved” that the president spoke about their child.
“We know that the death of our son Trayvon, the trial and the not-guilty verdict have been deeply painful and difficult for many people,” the parents said. “We know our family has become a conduit for people to talk about race in America and to try and talk about the difficult issues that we need to bring into the light in order to become a better people.”
Zimmerman’s lawyers also issued a response that credited the president for having the “courage” to talk about race. They urged people to understand the “nuances” of what Obama said and not focus on the line about the president’s identification with Trayvon.
“We cannot talk about race in sound bites. Before you cast an opinion about what the President said, be sure to listen to his comments in full,” the statement sad. “Before you judge George Zimmerman or disparage the verdict of the citizen jury, understand the facts in full. Agree not to listen to just what meets your predisposition, but to accept what exists.”
Obama’s remarks came one day before activists in Florida and the nation were to hold rallies and demonstrations in 100 U.S. cities, including Miami, to speak out against laws such as Stand Your Ground and to oppose the not-guilty verdict rendered last Saturday by a jury in Sanford. Zimmerman, charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter, successfully pleaded self-defense in shooting Trayvon on Feb. 26, 2012, at an at-times crime-ravaged apartment complex where the Miami Gardens teen was visiting his father.
A juror who spoke anonymously to CNN said the jury, after examining the Stand Your Ground law and the facts of the case, ultimately felt it could do nothing but acquit Zimmerman.
Passed in 2005 by the Florida Legislature, Stand Your Ground allows a person who fears grave bodily harm to use deadly force in a confrontation in public. Previously, Florida law generally held that a person had to attempt to retreat from a public confrontation before using deadly force.
It’s unclear, however, how much of a role Stand Your Ground ultimately had in Zimmerman’s acquittal.
Obama said he’d leave the legal issues over the trial to others. But he said he accepted the verdict.
“Once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works,” Obama said.
Obama’s comments Friday inflamed some conservatives who blamed the president for playing racial politics last year for commenting that Trayvon could have been his son. By explicitly identifying himself with the teen, the president heightened the attention all the more.
But the president made sure to give more extensive remarks and to address a concern expressed by many conservatives and whites about Trayvon’s case: the relative lack of discussion about black-on-black crime.
“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,” Obama said.
More than 91 percent of African-American homicide victims were killed by another black person in 2011, the latest year for which the age, sex and race of the offender are known by the FBI.
The white-on-white homicide rate: 83 percent.
Blacks, less than 14 percent of the nation’s population, account for a disproportionate share of homicide victims — 45 percent — when compared to whites (53 percent of race-identifiable homicide victims). The race-and-crime data aren’t available for Florida specifically, although experts say the fourth-most populous state generally mirrors the nation.
In the state and nation, blacks are more likely to be imprisoned as well. Forty-eight percent of Florida’s inmates are black, though African-Americans account for slightly more than 16 percent of the general population.
“African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence,” the president said. “It’s not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.”
The president said it’s time “for all of us to do some soul searching,” but he worried that the conversation would likely become “stilted and politicized” if politicians organized it.
The first black president also attested to what doesn’t always seem obvious: race relations are improving. He said his daughters and their friends were proof.
“They’re better than we are. They’re better than we were,” Obama said. “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.”
“We’re becoming a more perfect union,” the president said, “Not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.”