MIAMI (AP) — When President Barack Obama told the nation on Friday that slain black teenager Trayvon Martin could have been him 35 years ago, many black Americans across the nation nodded their head in silent understanding.
Like the president, they too have seen people walk across the street and lock their car doors as they got near. They, too, know what it’s like to be followed while shopping in a department store.
In many ways, it was the frank talk on what it can be like to be black in America that many African Americans had been waiting to hear from Obama, especially since a Florida jury last weekend acquitted neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Martin’s shooting death. And it generated a range of reactions — a reflection of the diverse opinions and experiences the conversation on race in the U.S. provokes.
“I think he was trying to give the other side of the equation,” Angela Bazemore, 56, an administrative assistant who lives in New York City, said. “Black people and brown people everywhere feel like they’ve been heard.”
Others felt his comments, while helpful, still only scratched the surface of an issue that is inherently more complex than the color of one’s skin.
“I was really happy with what he had to say, but I do feel like him being a multi-ethnic person and Zimmerman being multi-ethnic, are really downplayed when we talk about black and white,” said Hank Willis Thomas, an artist whose work frequently focuses on themes of race and identity.
In the unscheduled appearance before reporters at The White House, Obama said the nation needed to look for ways to move forward after the shooting and trial in Florida and urged Americans to do some soul searching about their attitudes on race.
It was the first set of extended remarks Obama has made on the Martin case since Zimmerman was acquitted by a six-woman jury of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in Martin’s death last year. Jurors found that Zimmerman had acted in self-defense when he shot the unarmed teenager. Martin was black. Zimmerman identifies himself as Hispanic.
Obama issued a statement after the verdict that said in part, “I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.”
He went much further on Friday.
“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,” he said.
Obama said that before becoming a senator, he himself experienced walking across the street and hearing the locks click on doors, among other similar situations. It’s that set of experiences, he said, that informs how of the black Americans interpret what happened one night in Sanford, Fla.
While acknowledging racial disparities in how criminal laws are applied, the African-American community isn’t “naive about the fact African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence,” he said.
He said race relations are, however, getting better.
Civil rights leader Al Sharpton, whose National Action Network is planning rallies in 100 cities to press for federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman on Saturday, said the president’s words were historic.
“There is nothing more powerful than the president of the United States, for the first time in history, saying, ‘I know how they feel,'” he said.
Martin’s parents said Obama’s words gave them strength.
“What touches people is that our son, Trayvon Benjamin Martin, could have been their son,” they said in a statement. “President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him. This is a beautiful tribute to our boy.”
Zimmerman’s defense attorneys said they acknowledged and understood the racial context of which Obama spoke, but wanted to “challenge people to look closely and dispassionately at the facts.”
Those who do so, they said, will see it was a clear case of self-defense and that Zimmerman is a “young man with a diverse ethnic and racial background who is not a racist.”
“While we acknowledge the racial context of the case, we hope that the president was not suggesting that this case fits a pattern of racial disparity, because we strongly contend that it does not,” they said in a statement.
It wasn’t the first time Obama has spoken about race to the nation. He delivered a speech on race during his 2008 presidential campaign after controversy arose around comments made by his former pastor. And the issue has surfaced from time to time during his presidency, including in 2009, when he invited black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the white police sergeant who arrested him for disorderly conduct for a 40-minute chat on the Rose Garden patio.
But many in the African-American community have wanted more.
“I think African Americans in particular wanted him to speak to an issue that deals with race as African Americans see it, and I think African Americans are pleased he’s done so,” said Brenda Stevenson, a history professor at the University of California Los Angeles. “But I think the president wanted to do so without alienating other people.”
Ana Navarro, a Republican consultant, said she cringed at first when she heard the president had spoken about the case.
“I cringed because I think the last thing we need is to insert politics into what is already a very divisive, emotional debate,” she said. “When I actually read his words, I thought he had been measured, respectful of the legal process.”
“I don’t think he’s asking white people to identify with black people,” she added. “He’s saying, ‘This is a reality for some of us in America.'”
Some felt Obama still didn’t go far enough.
“In a case that’s just bristling with racial tension, this is probably a sane and reasonable statement that can be made, that we need to step into each other’s shoes for a minute and understand through each other’s eyes the impact of a particular situation, namely this trial and the killing of this boy,” said Connie Rice, an African American civil rights attorney in Los Angeles. “The thing that he didn’t say and perhaps he couldn’t say is that this country is almost retarded when it comes to dealing with race.”
She remembered how Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about integration as the answer to America’s racial problems.
“Well guess what?” she said. “We decided not to integrate. We decided to desegregate and we decided to end Jim Crow but we never integrated, we are not fluent in each other.”
Stevenson said she wished he’d also addressed black women in his remarks.
Alexandra Grande, a 24-year-old law school student in Idaho, said she found Obama’s remarks to be compelling.
“I think he was being very diplomatic,” said Grande, watching as an ethnically mixed wedding party posed for pictures at a downtown Boise intersection. “But he also let his emotions play out, and that was interesting to see. At the end of the day, he is a man with emotions.”
For Nolan V. Rollins, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League, having the president of the U.S. talk about racial profiling in the first person is emblematic of two things.
“It says how far we’ve come, no question,” he said. “But it also says how far we have to go.”
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