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July 19, 2013 at 12:19 PM

President Obama: ‘Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago’

The headline of this post captures the emotive power of President Obama’s remarks this morning about Trayvon Martin. As everyone knows, George Zimmerman was acquitted by a Florida jury last week.  That his shooting an unarmed teenager should go without punishment has angered and confounded many people. Count me among them. In rallies in cities around the country, protesters have made their anger known. I’ve had my say here and here. This Times editorial published after the verdict argued against bringing federal charges against Zimmerman and for getting rid of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. But here’s what President Obama had to say:

“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.”

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.

Some criticize the outrage toward Zimmerman, countering that many young black men are killed by other young black men. That’s both true and has not gone unnoticed by civil rights advocates, educators, commuity leaders and practically everyone else. Indeed, Obama, in his remarks this morning,  met that argument head on.

“Now, this isn’t to say that the African American community is naïve 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.”

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