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Obama stakes out turf on Trayvon

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President Obama, making a surprise appearance on Friday in the White House briefing room to address the verdict in the Trayvon Martin killing, spoke in personal terms about the experience of being a black man in the United States, trying to put the case in the perspective of African-Americans. They were Mr. Obama's most extensive comments on race since 2008, and his most extensive as president.

"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 — that doesn't go away," Mr. Obama said in the briefing room. "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."

A jury on Saturday found George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, not guilty of second-degree murder in the killing of Mr. Martin in early 2012. The verdict has elicited marches and protests across the country, although there has been little violence. The killing of Mr. Martin, an unarmed black teenager, ignited a national debate on racial profiling and civil rights.

Mr. Obama issued a statement shortly after the verdict. But on Friday, he talked more broadly about his own feelings about the verdict and the impact it has had among African-Americans. "You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son," he said. "Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago."

He added: "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. And it's inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear."

Mr. Obama also said he and his staff were examining policy options, and he raised questions about the wisdom of laws like Florida's Stand Your Ground law.

"I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see if it — if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than defuse potential altercations," the president said.

In his remarks, the president called on Americans to search their souls on the question of race relations in the country, a topic that he has confronted only sporadically as the nation's first black president.

At the beginning of the month, Mr. Obama returned from a weeklong trip to Africa, where he stood in the cell that Nelson Mandela had occupied for 18 years before shattering South Africa's system of racial segregation to become that country's president. In a speech in Cape Town, Mr. Obama hailed the racial progress that country has made in the last generation.

"You've shown us how a prisoner can become a president. You've shown us how bitter adversaries can reconcile," Mr. Obama said in South Africa. "You've confronted crimes of hatred and intolerance with truth and love."

On Friday, he urged Americans to be honest with themselves about how far this country has come in confronting its own racial history.

"Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can; am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character?" he said. "That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy."

The answers to those questions, Mr. Obama suggested, will help determine how much progress America still needs to make. But he also predicted that future generations will be more inclusive than the present one.

"When I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they're better than we are," he said, referring to his two daughters. "They're better than we were on these issues. And that's true in every community that I've visited all across the country."

Mr. Obama had been under pressure from some African-Americans to weigh in more forcefully after the verdict. For several days, his spokesman deflected questions about Mr. Obama reaction.

But on Friday, after several days of silence, the president appeared eager to offer his thoughts. He declined to take questions, but talked at length about his personal experience as a black man and about the historical context that shapes African-American responses to cases like the one involving Mr. Martin.

"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," Mr. Obama said.

When Mr. Martin was shot in 2012, the president offered an emotional response, saying that "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon" and adding that "When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids."

In his comments on Friday, Mr. Obama praised the judge in the case and said that "once the jury's spoken, that's how our system works."

But he urged the country to take a broader look at the issues of race and the criminal justice system, saying that local and state communities should do more training to prevent profiling by law enforcement and others.

He also said laws like Florida's Stand Your Ground measure should be re-examined to make sure they are working to the benefit of everyone.

"For those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these Stand Your Ground laws, I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?" he asked. "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?"

The president said he was not advocating "some brand new federal program." But he said Americans should try to figure out new ways to "bolster and reinforce our African-American boys." He said that he and the first lady, Michelle Obama, talk often about the black youth who need positive reinforcement.

"There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement," he said. "And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?"

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