Lewis W. Diuguid

Obama says Trayvon Martin could have been him 35 years ago

Updated: 2013-07-20T22:42:18Z

By Lewis W. Diuguid

The Kansas City Star

President Barack Obama on Friday finally commented extensively on the not guilty verdict in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Obama made a surprise visit to the White House press room to speak about the acquittal of 29-year-old George Zimmerman and the reaction of African-Americans nationwide. Martin, who was black and unarmed, was shot to death in February 2012 in Sanford, Fla., after he was confronted by Zimmerman, a white Hispanic, who viewed Martin as a suspect.

A scuffle resulted in Martin being shot and Zimmerman contending it was self-defense, following Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” laws. Protests nationwide after the shooting prompted authorities to finally file second-degree murder charges against Zimmerman.

Protests have followed Zimmerman’s acquittal. Attorney General Eric Holder told the NAACP convention this week in Orlando, Fla., that the Justice Department investigation into the case continues. He also said it should prompt the nation to have an open discussion of race.

Obama’s comments just may start it in a big way. He said Friday:

“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 doesn't go away.

No other president but the country’s first African-American president could have given voice to black people’s concerns but Obama. He continued:

“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 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 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'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 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.

I think the African-American community is also not naive in understanding that, statistically, somebody like Trayvon Martin was statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else. 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 and that context is being denied. 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.”

The president called for more conversations without politics on race and African-American boys.

“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,” Obama said. “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, difficult journey, we're becoming a more perfect union -- not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.”

To reach Lewis W. Diuguid, call 816-234-4723 or send email to ldiuguid@kcstar.com.

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