Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago

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President Obama delivers a speech in the White House Press Room on July 19, 2013

Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago refers to a speech given by President Barack Obama on July 19, 2013. President Obama spoke in response to the public outcry caused by the not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, following the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. During the speech, President Obama referenced his earlier remarks, in which he stated that if he had a son, "he would look like Trayvon." During this speech, made six days after George Zimmerman was found not guilty, Obama said that another way to state it would be, "Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago." That phrase became the most frequently quoted portion of the speech in the news cycle that followed.[1]

The speech was unannounced, and given in place of the usual White House daily briefing normally given by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. In the 20-minute speech, President Obama spoke about public reaction to the trial, racial profiling, and the state of race relations in the United States.[1] The speech was widely covered on news networks, and made headlines across the country. The speech marked a major turning point for Barack Obama, who had previously shied away from addressing issues of racial tension during his presidency. During the remarks, President Obama spoke about the many African-Americans who have experienced racial profiling, including himself.[2]

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.[3]

President Obama also spoke about stand-your-ground laws, and pondered that if Trayvon Martin had been armed, whether he could legally have stood his ground on the sidewalk and shot George Zimmerman is at the least ambiguous. Based on that, Obama said such laws should be examined.[4]

Obama revisited the topic during an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno a week later.[5] Obama explained why he had waded into the issue in the first place. The president said he wanted "to try to explain why this was a particularly sensitive topic for African-American families because a lot of people who have sons know the experience they had of being followed and being viewed suspiciously."[5] Obama then put the issue in a broader perspective:

We all know young African-American men disproportionately have involvement in criminal activities and violence for a lot of reasons. And that's no excuse, but what we also believe in is people, everybody, should be treated fairly and the system should work for everyone. And so what I'm trying to do is just make sure that we have a conversation and that were all asking ourselves, Are there some things we can do to foster better understanding? And to make sure we don't have laws in place that encourage the kind of violent encounter that we saw there that resulted in tragedy.[5]

Reaction[edit]

President Obama's speech has received various reactions from the public. Trayvon Martin's parents praised the speech, saying, "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."[4] The Reverend Al Sharpton also praised the speech, calling it 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.[4]

George Zimmerman's defense team had a muted response, saying, "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."[4]

Conor Friedersdorf, drawing a parallel with the killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, asked rhetorically: "If a mixed race 16-year-old named Barack Hussein Obama had been killed overseas circa 1978, how many Americans would have cared?"[6]

Lee Habeeb of The National Review criticized Obama for not identifying with George Zimmerman along with Trayvon Martin, for what he perceived as racial bias in the national media against Zimmerman due to the initial belief that he was white, and that Zimmerman was unfairly targeted by the federal government for unwarranted investigations. "It could have been me facing criminal charges for doing nothing illegal that night, presumed guilty of a crime I didn’t commit, and presumed guilty of being a racist, even though I had not an ounce of racism in me, and even though the way I lived my life was proof of that assertion," Habeeb suggested Obama should've said. "It could have been me, I could have been George Zimmerman."[7]

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