WASHINGTON -- President Obama said Friday that all Americans should respect the George Zimmerman verdict, but white Americans should also understand that African Americans continue to face racial discrimination.
"Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago," Obama said during a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room.
Obama said he himself has been subjected to casual prejudice, but also said African Americans need to address the problems of violence in their own communities.
African-American males understand that they are more likely to be both "victims and perpetrators" of a crime, and "somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else," Obama said.
The problem is that so many people paint with a "broad brush" and see all black males as potential criminals, added the first African-American president.
More than a year after saying that Trayvon could have been his son, Obama told reporters that, like other African Americans, he has been followed by security guards while shopping, and has seen motorists lock their doors or women hold tighter to their purses as as he walked near them.
"I don't want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida," Obama said.
A Florida jury acquitted Zimmerman on Saturday night of murder in the 2012 death of 17-year-old Trayvon.
In a 17-minute address that got emotional at times, Obama said he respects the different views of the verdict, but the trial was conducted professionally, and "once the jury's spoken, that's how our system works."
As the Justice Department investigates whether to charge Zimmerman with civil rights violations in the wake of Trayvon's 2012 death, Obama said state and local governments should examine whether changes to laws can head off violent confrontations. That includes racial training for law enforcement in order to reduce tensions between police and minorities, he said.
The president also questioned the wisdom of Florida's "stand your ground" law, which, in the view of critics, all but encourages confrontation that could turn deadly.
Too many African Americans and other minorities distrust the justice system, Obama said, and view the Zimmerman-Trayvon case through "a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away."
Obama said all Americans should do "soul-searching" in the wake of the verdict and the reactions to it, but questioned whether a full-blown "national conversion" would do much good if too many politicians or pundits were involved.
Borrowing a quote from Abraham Lincoln, Obama said people should appeal to "the better angels" of human natures, rather than using incidents like Trayvon's death and Zimmerman's acquittal to "heighten divisions."
Obama also said that Americans should realize that, over the course of decades, American race relations have improved.
"I don't want us to lose sight of the fact that things are getting better," Obama said.
Obama also paid tribute to Trayvon's parents, saying that "I can only imagine what they're going through and it's remarkable how they've handled it."
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