July 19, 2013— -- In a deeply personal reflection on race, President Obama today said the African-American community is frustrated and pained by the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting of Trayvon Martin because of a "history that doesn't go away."
"Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago," the president said in his first on-camera response to Saturday's verdict. "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."
Zimmerman, 29, shot Martin, who was 17, claiming it was in self-defense. The not guilty verdict triggered outrage in cities across the country.
Making a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room, the president said African American men, in particular, have become accustomed to being viewed with suspicion.
"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," he said.
"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," he said.
A senior white house aide told ABC News that after watching the debate over the Zimmerman verdict for five days and talking about it privately with family and friends, including first lady Michelle Obama, the president called his senior staff into the Oval Office Thursday afternoon to say he wanted to "speak from the heart" and make some personal remarks about Martin's death and trial.
The president decided the best thing to do would be to come to the briefing room unannounced and deliver his heartfelt remarks directly to reporters.
The president said the African-American community is not "naïve" to the fact that young African-American men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, both as victims and perpetrators, but that a lack of context adds to the public frustration.
"We 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," he said. "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."
The president called for a review of the "stand your ground laws," but stopped short of calling for a national dialogue on race relations, saying attempts by politicians to drive those discussions "end up being stilted and politicized."
"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?" Obama asked. "If the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws."
As a nation, the president said, "We need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys."
"I'm not naive about the prospects of some brand new federal program. I'm not sure that that's what we're talking about here. But I do recognize that as president, I've got some convening power," he said.
Finally, he urged Americans to do some "soul-searching" and was optimistic that progress is occurring.
"Things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn't mean that we're in a postracial society. It doesn't mean that racism is eliminated. But you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they're better than we are. They're better than we were on these issues," he said.
Obama underscored that "in a case such as this, reasonable doubt was relevant, and [the jury] rendered a verdict. And once the jury's spoken, that's how our system works."
On behalf of himself and the First Lady, the president offered his thoughts and prayers to the family of Trayvon Martin, saying they have dealt with the situation with "incredible grace and dignity."
"I can only imagine what they're going through, and it's -- it's remarkable how they've handled it," he said.
Martin's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, issued a statement saying, "We are deeply honored and moved that President Obama took the time to speak publicly and at length about our son, Trayvon."
They said the president's comment that he "sees himself in Trayvon ... is a beautiful tribute to our boy."
Zimmerman's legal team also put out a statement.
"We acknowledge Mr. Obama's remarks regarding the frustration felt by some when viewed incontext of our nation's history, which includes racial insensitivities spanning generations, and existing even today, including within our criminal justice system," the statement said.
"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," the statement said.