Was President Obama Right to Speak Out About Trayvon Martin?

The president said he could have been the Florida teen 35 years ago.

President Barack Obama.
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President Barack Obama Friday made unexpected remarks about the state of race relations in the United States, nearly a week after a ruling was delivered in the case of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Obama released a statement immediately following the announcement last weekend that George Zimmerman was not guilty, but said he felt the need to expand upon his thoughts.

The case of Martin, the 17-year-old African-American Florida boy shot in February 2012 by Zimmerman, has sparked conversation and debate about the state of race relations in the country. Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, said he shot the unarmed Martin in self defense, but outraged activists have staged protests and called for federal civil rights charges to be brought against the neighborhood watch volunteer.

Obama said Martin "could have been me 35 years ago." "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 said. "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."

[ See a collection of editorial cartoons on the Trayvon Martin tragedy.]

He said the country must recognize that the African-American community views the Martin case through America's complex history, which is something that cannot readily be erased. He acknowledged that while there is an obvious racial disparity in the application of the country's criminal laws, African-American men are disproportionately both the victims and perpetrators of violence.

Obama, the country's first African-American president, generally steers clear of discussing race. But in his speech he called for the country to reflect on the death of Martin and use the experience to "move in a positive direction." He also called for an examination of "stand your ground" laws, and ways to keep African-American boys out of the legal system.

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