"Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago," President Obama said Friday in the White House press room.
The president's decision to speak out about the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case is an explosive, risky step in an already polarized racial landscape.
The first black president has tried to speak about race before and not had a good response. That's possibly why he said that he's not calling for a "national dialogue" but asking people to do some soul searching at home, at church and among friends.
The president's decision to come out and speak, despite the warnings from his top advisers, reveals how deeply the Martin-Zimmerman case has torn at the nation's long, troubled history of race relations.
The fact is president must have concluded that he had no choice but to speak out or be recorded in the history books as a political no-show on the critical race issues of his day.
President Obama is already under fire for not doing enough on race, for not speaking out about black on black crime in the country, about high black unemployment, about the tragedy of urban education for black kids. Something deep in him must have forced him to speak out this time.
While it won't please his critics that the president spoke at all, it's clear that Mr. Obama is trying to offer a leader's healing prescription for a nation filled with hurt over the Martin-
I know I have been hurt in the days since the verdict.
I have been full of sadness over the not-guilty verdict in the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman murder. The lack of justice for a dead teenager and the Martin family is sad, it is tragic.
Yes, the prosecution failed, in my opinion, to make the case beyond reasonable doubt that Zimmerman acted with the malice necessary for a conviction on second-degree murder.
Yes, the jury failed to see the need for justice for all.
And, yes, the media failed to be fair.
These failures began before the trial when the special prosecutor in the case, Florida State Attorney Angela Corey, did not convene a grand jury. After the local police failed to arrest or charge Zimmerman the prosecutors were in a rush to satisfy racial activists, the media and political pressure for immediate action.
That was a big mistake. A grand jury might have told them they did not have evidence to support a charge of second-degree murder. And a grand jury might have opened the door to prosecutors considering a range of lesser charges for Zimmerman -- from manslaughter to assault and weapons violations.
With those charges a jury, feeling confined by the technical limits of the law, could still have produced some justice for murder victim and his family.
But the prosecution’s missteps left this jury unable to get beyond the specifics of the second-degree murder charge.
The president of the American Society of Trial Consultants told the Washington Post this week that since the beginning of our nation Americans have had “this colonial perception of a jury as standing up for what is ‘the right thing to do,’ not for what is the correct, case-specific application of a certain law to a certain body of evidence.”
Meanwhile, there was no justice for Zimmerman in the media. Too many reporters wrongly made the case all about race. That narrative was unfair to Zimmerman. But some in the media found it too easy to impose a racial framework in which Zimmerman became a white racist attacking a black teen.
In fact, Zimmerman, who has a Peruvian mother and American white father, fits the bill of what is usually described as Hispanic.
People of all colors have racial attitudes. The idea of racial stereotyping and fear of blacks by Hispanics, Asians and other minorities seems beyond comprehension to some journalists but it is real.
To make the connection between black men and crime is not evidence of racism. As Jason Riley, who is African-American, wrote in the Wall Street Journal this week there is a disturbing high rate of convictions of black men for violent crime in America. So, let’s not tell lies in an attempt to claim race is not an issue. Americans, black and white, are all conscious of race, the history of racial division in our country and the painful curves it continues to throw at us all.
As part of a neighborhood watch program Zimmerman is assumed to have on the lookout for suspicious characters for all races. But once he saw the person in the hooded sweatshirt was a black teenager and angry at being followed then a long history of stereotypes of young black males as criminals kicks in for Americans.
And it is folly to pretend that if the situation had been reversed and a black stranger was following Zimmerman that he would not have been fearful.
Again, the media, like the prosecution, and like the jury – all failed to exercise the honesty required to act wisely.
All together the prosecution, media and jury failed to offer any justice to the mother of a murdered, unarmed 17-year-old who was not involved in any crime and not threatening anyone. The young man was followed as he was walking home, confronted by a stranger with a gun and then killed.
Whether the young man threw a punch or a rock it is hard to see any wisdom in allowing a killer to walk away because he feared for his safety after scaring the victim.
But one juror, identified by her jury service number as B37, said in a post-trial interview that Martin has some responsibility for his death because “when George confronted him he could have walked away.”
It is also true that “George” could have avoided the whole incident by staying in his car.
The juror, the wife of a lawyer, allowed that Zimmerman “went too far and did not use good judgment.” She also said the laws were “very confusing.” And then she concluded idly that “someone lost their life and nothing else could be done about it.”
Four of the five other jurors issued a statement disavowing B-37’s comments. They simply said “in the end we did what the law required us to do.”
And that is where we must do better.
The limits of the law are no excuse for failing to give justice to the family of a dead, unarmed teen who had his whole life ahead of him. It is no excuse for leaving another man, Zimmerman, as a target of hate for the rest of his life.
No matter where you stand on the outcome of the Martin-Zimmerman case, President Obama's admonition Friday for us all to stop and do a little soul searching here is on the money.
We have to demand more of our prosecutors, our media, our juries, ourselves.