US PRESIDENT Barack Obama has called on all Americans to reflect on the death of black teenager Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of the neighbourhood watchman who shot him dead.
Identifying himself with the reaction of black Americans, Obama said the 17-year-old “could have been me 35 years ago”. He said the case conjured up a hard history of racial injustice “that doesn’t go away”.
Although Obama has written about his own struggles with racial identity, the surprise speech marked his most extensive discussion of race as president and an unusual embrace of the longing of many African-Americans for him to give voice to their experiences.
“I think it’s important to recognise 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.
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.
“Black people and brown people everywhere feel like they’ve been heard,” said Angela Bazemore, 56, an administrative assistant who lives in New York City.
A Florida jury last week cleared George Zimmerman of all charges in the February 2012 shooting of Martin, who was an unarmed.
The verdict was cheered by those who agreed that Zimmerman was acting in self-defence, while others protested the outcome, believing Zimmerman, who identifies himself as Hispanic, had targeted Martin because he was black.
Martin was staying in the gated community where Zimmerman lived and had gone out on a rainy evening last year to buy snacks. Zimmerman, who was armed with a handgun and was part of a neighbourhood watch scheme, spotted Martin and called authorities to report that he thought the teenager was acting suspiciously.
Against the advice of an emergency dispatcher, who said police were on their way, Zimmerman followed Martin and shot the teenager, allegedly during a scuffle.
Despite his emotional comments on the case, Obama 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”.
Even as the president urged the public to accept the verdict, he gave voice to the feelings held by many angered by the verdict. There is a sense, Obama said, “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 spoke emotionally about Martin’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, saying they had displayed remarkable grace and dignity. He never mentioned the feelings of Zimmerman, whose brother has said the former defendant has faced numerous death threats.
Martin’s parents released a statement following the remarks, saying: “President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him. This is a beautiful tribute to our boy.”