U.S. President asks: Are we ‘wringing
out as much bias’ as we can?

It was clear when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States that as the first black person to hold that office, new ground had been broken, and the country would find itself in a position to experience new opportunities to increase its understanding of, and relationship with, the black community.

At no time was that more evident than at 1:30 or so on Friday, June 19, when the President made a surprise visit to the White House press briefing room and offered remarks, without notes or a teleprompter, about the nation’s response to the verdict in the Trayvon Martin killing.

I believe that it serves the public interest to publish the President’s remarks word for word, without further comment from me now, then allow all of us to post whatever reactions we may have to what the President said in the Comments Section below this entry.

Here, then, is a transcript of President Obama’s remarks at the White House on Friday, July 19, 2013 as released by the Office of the Press Secretary:

THE PRESIDENT:  I wanted to come out here, first of all, to tell you that Jay is prepared for all your questions and is very much looking forward to the session.  The second thing is I want to let you know that over the next couple of weeks, there’s going to obviously be a whole range of issues — immigration, economics, et cetera — we’ll try to arrange a fuller press conference to address your questions.

The reason I actually wanted to come out today is not to take questions, but to speak to an issue that obviously has gotten a lot of attention over the course of the last week — the issue of the Trayvon Martin ruling.  I gave a preliminary statement right after the ruling on Sunday.  But watching the debate over the course of the last week, I thought it might be useful for me to expand on my thoughts a little bit.

First of all, I want to make sure that, once again, I send my thoughts and prayers, as well as Michelle’s, to the family of Trayvon Martin, and to remark on the incredible grace and dignity with which they’ve dealt with the entire situation.  I can only imagine what they’re going through, and it’s remarkable how they’ve handled it.

The second thing I want to say is to reiterate what I said on Sunday, which is there’s going to be a lot of arguments about the legal issues in the case — I’ll let all the legal analysts and talking heads address those issues.  The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner.  The prosecution and the defense made their arguments.  The juries were properly instructed that in a case such as this reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict.  And once the jury has spoken, that’s how our system works.  But I did want to just talk a little bit about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling.

You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son.  Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.  And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, 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.

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.  There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars.  That happens to me — at least before I was a senator.  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.

And 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.  The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.  And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.

Now, this isn’t to say that the African American community is naïve about the fact that African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system; that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence.  It’s not to make excuses for that fact — although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.  They understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.

And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration.  And the fact that a lot of African American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African American boys are more violent — using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.

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.  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.

Now, the question for me at least, and I think for a lot of folks, is where do we take this?  How do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction?  I think it’s understandable that there have been demonstrations and vigils and protests, and some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through, as long as it remains nonviolent.  If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family.  But beyond protests or vigils, the question is, are there some concrete things that we might be able to do.

I know that Eric Holder is reviewing what happened down there, but I think it’s important for people to have some clear expectations here.  Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government, the criminal code.  And law enforcement is traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.

That doesn’t mean, though, that as a nation we can’t do some things that I think would be productive.  So let me just give a couple of specifics that I’m still bouncing around with my staff, so we’re not rolling out some five-point plan, but some areas where I think all of us could potentially focus.

Number one, precisely because law enforcement is often determined at the state and local level, I think it would be productive for the Justice Department, governors, mayors to work with law enforcement about training at the state and local levels in order to reduce the kind of mistrust in the system that sometimes currently exists.

When I was in Illinois, I passed racial profiling legislation, and it actually did just two simple things.  One, it collected data on traffic stops and the race of the person who was stopped.  But the other thing was it resourced us training police departments across the state on how to think about potential racial bias and ways to further professionalize what they were doing.

And initially, the police departments across the state were resistant, but actually they came to recognize that if it was done in a fair, straightforward way that it would allow them to do their jobs better and communities would have more confidence in them and, in turn, be more helpful in applying the law.  And obviously, law enforcement has got a very tough job.

So that’s one area where I think there are a lot of resources and best practices that could be brought to bear if state and local governments are receptive.  And I think a lot of them would be.  And let’s figure out are there ways for us to push out that kind of training.

Along the same lines, 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 diffuse potential altercations.

I know that there’s been commentary about the fact that the “stand your ground” laws in Florida were not used as a defense in the case.  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?

And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these “stand your ground” laws, I’d just ask people to consider, 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.

Number three — and this is a long-term project — we need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African American boys.  And this is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about.  There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement.  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?

I’m not naïve about the prospects of some grand, new federal program.  I’m not sure that that’s what we’re talking about here. But I do recognize that as President, I’ve got some convening power, and there are a lot of good programs that are being done across the country on this front.  And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes, and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed — I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was obviously a tragic situation.  And we’re going to spend some time working on that and thinking about that.

And then, finally, I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching.  There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race.  I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations.  They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.  On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, 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?  That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.

And let me just leave you with a final thought that, as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better.  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 seem them interact, they’re better than we are — they’re better than we were — on these issues.  And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.

And so we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues.  And those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature, as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions.  But we should also have confidence that kids these days, I think, have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did; and that along this long, difficult journey, we’re becoming a more perfect union — not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.

Thank you, guys.

END
1:52 P.M. EDT July 19, 2013

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  • Awareness

    Well President Barack Hussein Obama although I don’t believe you, I have some suggestions to change CONSCIOUSNESS in the direction we say we prefer to go. I suggest that you team up with Neale Donald Walsch and set up a massive programme that includes all the “Conversations with God” material as part of the school curriculum at all levels of education. So that by the time individuals complete high school they are able to remember word for word all the “Conversations with God” material. The persistent remembrance of the “Conversations with God” material will replace any old beliefs and consequently direct CONSCIOUSNESS in the direction we say we wish to go. I recall God said in “Conversations with God for Teens”:

    “I would change your beliefs about who you are, and who I am, and how life is.

    I would cause you to notice that you and I are One, that you are likewise one with everything and everyone else, and that life is eternal, with no beginning and no end.

    These simple ideas would alter the course of your experience forever, and change your whole world.”

    CONSCIOUSNESS is shifting naturally though, so I believe we are moving in the preferred direction 🙂

    LOVE, Oneness, LAUGHTER and The LIGHT of GOD Almighty, ALL That IS, GREAT SPIRIT! GREAT SPIRIT! 🙂

    • mewabe

      You hit the nail on the head Awareness, as long as the mainstream culture has limiting beliefs, it can try its very best to fix some situations but it will remain stifled by false belief systems and keep going round and round.

      On another note Obama correctly addressed the lack of context when viewing such a situation. History is somehow forgotten…the same thing happens about Native Americans, they are judged as if they had no history, or as if they should have “gotten over it”, but researches have demonstrated that they and other groups suffer from transgenerational PTSD, trauma that is passed from one generation to the next.

      This trauma issue is a complicated issue, which requires a willingness for the entire culture to heal together, in context. Total honesty and courage are the key here, and the understanding that healing is not about blame or having a “victim mentality”, quite the opposite, it is about honestly acknowledging and dealing with thoughts, feelings, expectations and beliefs.

  • Michael L

    So here we have a teachable moment.

    Do we need a honest dialogue on race, sure, of course.

    Was this trial the forum to do it…………….well after all parties weighed in, I guess.

    I feel the President missed the moment again.

    He could have brought deep clarity to the troubles in the inner cities where the children are being murdered every day. And got behind some uplifting program how love can change that situation. Really it has been years and years of shootings. What is he waiting for? It’s his political town.

    I have read that each weekend the average is 60 shooting in Chicago.

    Where is the conversation about this national tragedy, and the solutions?

    Cities are going under all around us(Detroit) and Nero (Government) still fiddles.

  • petwar83

    At the end he points to what’s most important here: that the gradual consciousness shift we are pushing for is in action. My generation (I’m 20) is much more accepting than those that have come before us, and I would certainly hope (and I do believe) that the next generation will be even more accepting. Obviously it’s not perfect and there are still strong circles where racism is alive and well. But, for example, if one of my friends says something racist he/she is called out on it because it’s just not widely accepted anymore for people my age. So that, small as it is, is progress nonetheless.

    I do not know the details of this case and so I cannot have a strong, well-informed opinion about the outcome. But I do know that this is yet another opportunity for all of us to stand together and pledge to be more accepting, loving individuals. Because more violence does nothing but keep us in the world we are presently in. If five people across the US today wake up and make a pledge to themselves to be more accepting of others and to try their hardest not to stereotype, then the world is “further along” than it was yesterday. Change takes a long time. But each of us can facilitate that change, one by one, slowly but surely.

    In times of tragedy, be radical by refusing to repeat the mistakes that caused it in the first place.

    Blessed be.

  • It was a great message, covered excellent points, honest & inspiring.

    It’s often hard to see beyond the filter of our own personal bias, influenced so much from our past, be they strong or subtle bias. Education seems to be the key.

    I wish we’d see more intelligent messages like this in our media & internet comments which are often full of negative non constructive rants that serve no one.

    All of this serves a purpose of awakening & when we don’t get the message, it will resurface again until we do. Lessons or incidents like this will be continually repeated until learned & integrated.

  • Gina

    I head this on WTOP news hour and was deeply touched. The news commentators said it was not planned, not politically calculated, but rather was totally spontganeous. One said, “there was no false note, so to speak, everything he said was heart-felt and genuine.” The normally critical commentators couldn’t find words to criticize except that the President didn’t talk much from a legal perspective which he said he wouldn’t do from the beginning of the press conference.

    Mr. Obama hit the nail on the head for me, what are some CONCRETE things we can focus our energies on after the valuable lesson this incident has been signifying and accumulating momentum around? The one about enabling & truly utilizing law enforcement and call for communities talking, not politicians talking were spot on! Mr. Obama could have been reading some of current spritiual writing.

  • mewabe

    Obama correctly addressed the lack of context when
    viewing such a situation. History is somehow forgotten…the same thing
    happens with Native Americans, they are judged in the exclusive context
    of their present lives as if they had no history, or as if they should
    have “gotten over it”.

    Very important and relatively unknown and ignored researches have
    demonstrated that Native Americans and other groups such as African
    Americans and Jews suffer from transgenerational PTSD, trauma that is
    passed from one generation to the next.

    This trauma issue is a complicated issue, which requires a
    willingness for the entire culture to heal together, in context. Total
    honesty and courage are the key here, and the understanding that healing
    is not about blame or making another party “guilty”, or having a
    “victim mentality”, quite the opposite, it is about honestly
    acknowledging and dealing with thoughts, feelings, expectations and
    beliefs.

    In the final analysis healing is about being heard in a
    compassionate, non-judgmental, patient, attentive and loving manner.
    Being fully present with another. That’s how hearts stay open and keep
    opening more, as well as minds.

    True healing leads to mutual understanding and identification, which
    are in themselves the truest and most spontaneous, effortless forms of
    mutual forgiveness.

    When you get there, when you deeply understand and can totally
    identify with the “other”, you know the issue has been resolved at the
    heart/soul level, and all that is left is for practical details to
    follow.

    Unfortunately people usually do the opposite…they try to fix things at the practical level in order to heal the heart/soul.

    That doesn’t work. That’s how we end up with people who on the
    “outside” have perfect lives, have no “practical” problems of any kind,
    yet take drugs or alcohol or engage in any other form of self
    destruction because the heart and soul are in distress.

    When a person or a group hurts, we should stop and listen, rather
    than dismissing their pain as invalid. ALL FEELINGS ARE VALID, and all
    they require is EXPRESSION, to be acknowledged and understood.

    That’s how we make progress along the path of healing, as all
    feelings lead to a return to love, if we follow their thread all the way
    through. We can never get “lost” in feelings, only in the judgmental
    mind.

    Healing is not an easy path…but it is the spiritual way.

  • politics

    I have to ask myself some very important questions before any real discussion about race can be the focal point.

    Why is it that the truth did not become the issue? Even after the verdict? Any propaganda relating to race deserves to know why it happened in the first place. Color was not the real issue here, but we made it so. Why?

    Mr. Zimmerman was told to stay put, Mr. Martin could have continued home without looking back. Neither of these two things happened, why? These are the real reasons there was a loss of Human Life and then the inevitable misplacement of actual justice due to the fact that we just look at an easy way out of any circumstance that suits individual needs. Point the finger without even knowing what you are pointing at, or whom. Then see who is going to pay for the damage.

    Now I have already answered these questions for myself, but this isn’t about me now is it?

  • mewabe

    Regarding Neale’s post of July 16, (another way of looking at the Martin/Zimmerman tragedy) which turned out to be so controversial…check out (google) restorative Justice Programs, and Restorative Justice Colorado.

  • Erin

    They are ever wonder-full…child-eyes. It would be nice if more Bigs would See through them. Inspiring message, Mr. O…for a change, & for Change. 🙂

  • Mike Brown

    The biggest way to get change is for the poor and disenfranchised to vote but of course

    in subtle ways with rules in many states even that is made difficult . Voter registration is a

    productive use of resources. Stand your ground Shoot em up baby

    laws are decided at the state level. So as good as Obama is at speechifying I’m not sure

    whats going to be done.

  • Jeanette Traylor

    After observing all that has transpired since the Zimmerman trial, I am now believing that all things, as painful as they are, are indeed unfolding in divine order. Only a “not guilty” verdict could have stirred the nation as it has, prompting the President to feel the need to give a speech geared toward bringing calm and clarity to a condition not understood by many. Only this President could speak from a position of identity with the injured masses, thus allowing their pain to be aired. My Mother grew up in a segregated and racist South. It has taken many years for her to be able to listen to the voice of a white southerner, and not have a reaction of contempt based on her memories and her experiences of treatment of blacks during her years, there. As a result, she never had a desire to return after arriving in New york. Things were not great here, but I’m sure it seemed like heaven compared to what she knew. She talks about it, but doesn’t understand how painful it is for me to know what she endured. So, at every point, I try to change the subject. It is unrealistic for anyone to believe we can get beyond this centuries-old pain without having a conversation, without hearing and being heard. We must deal with the youth within our community, so that they will know they live in a world of unlimited opportunity, that their lives are valuable. You would be amazed at how many don’t believe it. Being in that community, and working in a position to see them way too often after being involved in the crimial justice system, I am dumbfounded by the hopelessness of these young people. Let’s each one reach at least one. If you believe we are truly one, then know there is a scared youth out there that feels he is not a part of you because he isn’t good enough. GOD bless the President. I don’t believe it is coincidental that he is the President during these times. GOD bless you, Neale for being the unifying messenger that you are.
    “The wolf shall dwell with the Lamb, and the Leopard shall lie down with the Kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling, together…and a little child shall lead them”.
    Isiah 11:6