WASHINGTON — Reflecting in stark and unusually personal terms on race and the nation's struggle with the issue, President Barack Obama on Friday said, "Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago," and he called for a review of Florida's "stand your ground" law.
"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," Obama said in a surprise appearance before the White House press corps. "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."
Obama's comments came six days after a jury in Sanford acquitted George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Martin, and were the president's most extensive on race since he was first elected in 2008. They came as protests continue across the country, including Florida where a rally in Martin's memory was held Friday in St. Petersburg and another is planned today in Tampa.
Obama, who spoke for about 18 minutes without notes, did not second guess the trial. "Once the jury has spoken, that's how our system works," he said.
But he sought to add context to the situation and reaction from the African-American community. He talked about the racial profiling that black men, himself included, feel in everyday life and a "history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws."
"I think the African-American community is also not naïve in understanding that, statistically, somebody like Trayvon Martin was statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else," Obama said, insisting he was not making excuses. "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. And that all contributes I think to a sense 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."
Obama said the demonstrations were understandable but cautioned against violence that "dishonors what happened to Martin and his family." The teen's parents released a statement calling the speech a "beautiful tribute." Some conservative commentators suggested Obama was inflaming racial tension.
He said Attorney General Eric Holder is looking into civil rights issues raised by the case but lowered expectations. "Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government, the criminal code." Nonetheless, Obama said there could be more training to reduce racial profiling. He called for a better national conversation on race — "soul searching," as he put it, that could happen in families and churches and workplaces.
Obama also called for a review of "stand your ground" laws, which Florida and other states have adopted that permit the use of lethal force in some situations where a person feels endangered.
Noting commentary that the law was not central in the Zimmerman defense, Obama said, "On the other hand, if we're sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there's a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we'd like to see?"
He added: "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? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws."
Before Obama spoke, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., announced that the Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on such laws.
But there is little political momentum in Florida.
Gov. Rick Scott told young demonstrators on Thursday that he would not call a special session to review the law, urging them instead to seek change through state lawmakers.
"I believe 'stand your ground' should stay in the books," said Scott, who was forced to return to Tallahassee after the protesters camped outside his office for three days.
The group made plans to stay in the Capitol over the weekend.
When asked Friday if he thought Obama was politicizing the issue, Scott did not respond with a yes or no.
"What we ought to be doing is mourning the loss of a young man," the governor said. "We ought to be doing what we're going to be doing on Sunday. We ought to be praying about how we bring our state back together. We ought to be praying for unity."
Scott called for a day of prayer Sunday and said he was supported by Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton, with whom he spoke on Thursday.
Obama addressed the Zimmerman verdict in a statement after the trial, but his comments Friday were far more extensive and laced with personal reflection. The nation's first black president has not often talked about race, underscoring the complexity of the subject. He tried to end on a positive note, talking about his daughters.
"Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn't mean we're in a post-racial society. It doesn't mean that racism is eliminated. But when I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they're better than we are on these issues. And that's true in every community that I've visited all across the country."
Miami Herald political writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.