Despite that fact that Obama’s race has been central to the narrative of his political rise, he has rarely addressed the matter as a public figure. He last spoke about race in a substantial way as a presidential candidate in 2008 in addressing criticism over incendiary comments made by his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
In 2009, Obama stumbled when commenting on the arrest of a black Harvard professor in the professor’s home, saying the police “acted stupidly.” The president was forced to retract his statement, then held an awkward “beer summit” at the White House with the professor, Henry Louis Gates, and the white arresting officer.
But on Friday, Obama spoke poignantly about the distrust that shadows many African-American men, saying that they can draw nervous stares on elevators and hear car locks clicking when they walk down the street.
“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,” he said. “That includes me.”
In a departure from his typical caution on legal matters, the president also waded into the thorny debates on racial profiling and Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, despite the fact that neither was formally raised during Zimmerman’s trial.
Obama said it would be useful “to examine some state and local laws to see if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of confrontation” that led to Martin’s death. He questioned whether a law that sends the message that someone who is armed “has the right to use those firearms even if there is a way for them to exit from a situation” really promotes peace and security.
And he raised the provocative question of whether Martin himself, if he had been armed and of age, “could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk” and shot Zimmerman if he felt threatened when being followed.
Seeking to inject a sense of hope into his otherwise somber remarks, the president said race relations in the United States have improved with each passing generation. He said his young daughters and their friends are “better than we were.”
“We’re becoming a more perfect union,” he said. “Not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.”