WASHINGTON - In a rare and public reflection on race, President Barack Obama called on the nation Friday to do some soul searching over the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his shooter, saying the slain black teenager "could have been me 35 years ago." Empathizing with the pain of many black Americans, Obama said the case conjured up a hard history of racial injustice "that doesn't go away."
Obama's personal comments, in a surprise appearance in the White House press room, marked his most extensive discussion of race as president. For Obama, who has written about his own struggles with racial identity but often has shied away from the subject in office, the speech signaled an unusual embrace of his standing as the nation's first black president and the longing of many African-Americans for him to give voice to their experiences.
"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 doesn't go away," Obama said during his 20-minute remarks.
President Barack Obama speaks to reporters in the Brady Press Briefing room of the White House in Washington, Friday.
A Florida jury last week acquitted George Zimmerman of all charges in the February 2012 shooting of Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old. The verdict was cheered by those who agreed that Zimmerman was acting in self-defense, while others protested the outcome, believing Zimmerman had targeted Martin because he was black.
Despite his emotional comments on the case, the president appeared to signal that the Justice Department was unlikely to file federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman. Traditionally, he said, "these are issues of state and local government," and he warned that the public should have "clear expectations."
Following the verdict, some civil rights leaders called on Obama to lead a national conversation on race. But the president has resisted. Before Friday, his only comment on the verdict had been a written statement in which he called Martin's death a tragedy and appealed for calm.
But throughout the week, the president kept track of the national response to the verdict, particularly by black Americans, and had discussions with his family, aides said. He was ready to address the verdict earlier this week during a round of interviews with Spanish language television stations, but the matter never came up.