Obama: “Trayvon Martin could have been me”

‘Trayvon Martin could have been me,’ Obama tells press corps

From the Toronto Star reporting on a press conference earlier today, Obama finally gives the world a bit more than a written statement about the Trayvon Martin case.

“Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” said Obama, not just acknowledging but slaying the elephant in the room.

A gape-jawed White House press corps sat astonished as Obama, himself the product of a biracial family — a black father from Kenya, a white mother from Kansas — described, as never before, what it feels like inside young, black male skin.

Time changes but history doesn’t. And it is “inescapable” that African-Americans will see the scot-free exoneration of Zimmerman in the shooting death of a Skittles-toting Florida teen through the lens of their own collective experience.

“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,” said Obama.

“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.”

It’s sad to me that everyone was described as ‘gape-jawed’ and ‘astonished’. The part I appreciated most, in addition to his candour about some of the realities of the prejudice and outright racist reactions that black men face in the States (and elsewhere, I’m sure), was the fact that he addressed the Stand Your Ground laws. He said (my emphasis),

Along the same lines, I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see 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. I know that there’s been commentary about the fact that the Stand Your Ground laws in Florida were not used as a defense in the case. On the other hand, if we’re sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms, even if there’s a way for them to exit from a situation. Is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we’d like to see? 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, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws. (10:47-12:32)

Have a listen. I know he’s in a massively politicized (er, obviously, but really) and difficult position, but I do wish to see more straightforwardness like this from him. So many of us need this from him. And to that end, I seriously appreciated what he stated in point three about talks on racism. From the Star article:

The notion of convening a national “conversation on race,” he said, is likely to end up “stilted and politicized,” with people “locked into the positions they already have.”

That doesn’t mean Americans can’t “examine some state and local laws,” like the Stand Your Ground legislation in 22 states that favours gun-holders in violent confrontations, he said. Or work to improve efforts to “bolster and reinforce young African American boys … to give them a sense their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them.”

And it doesn’t mean families, churches and workplaces can’t embrace an effort to be a “little more honest” in asking the question: “Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the colour of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy,” said Obama.


He’s absolutely correct about the probability of national talks on racism being unproductive. I hadn’t actually considered that, but it makes perfect sense. This is something that needs to happen within each person. It can’t come from the top down — that’s blowing smoke in everyone’s face. It needs to truly be a Grassroots Effort, dismantling racism. And though I’m not the least bit religious, churches really do have a lot of weight here. Some churches know this and are using it to a positive end. Here’s an official statement from Russell Moore, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission:

“Regardless of what Trayvon Martin was doing or not doing that night, you have someone who was taking upon himself some sort of vigilante justice, even by getting out of the car. Regardless of what the legal verdict was, this was wrong,. And when you add this to the larger context of racial profiling and a legal system that does seem to have systemic injustices as it relates to African-Americans with arrests and sentencing, I think that makes for a huge crisis.”

It’s a reaction I find surprising, coming from a (white) leader in the Southern Baptist community. But it’s a response that I most thoroughly appreciate and it’s a good start. I want to see more action and introspection. I want to see a hell of a lot of soul searching on the part of white people. I want this to be a topic that becomes easier to talk about. Because the more we talk about it, the more momentum we can get. And as Ndidi Onukwulu sings, “We can get there faster if we all move together.”

Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you for adding your much-needed voice to this ongoing conversation.