WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama took the White House podium Friday to offer marginal fixes to the problems raised by the trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla.
But he acknowledged that African-American males have a higher-than-average crime rate, shortly before he dismissed the data as an “excuse” for treating black youths differently.
“Now, this isn’t to say that the African-American community is naive about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence,” he said.
He immediately suggested that Americans should ignore the data. “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,” he said.
A November 2011 report by the Justice Department said that young African-American men comprise only 1 percent of the population, but commit 27 percent of the murders.
Instead, he identified the problem as racism, and Obama suggested states pass laws to curb profiling and reduce the “stand your ground” legal defenses.
“I think it’d 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,” he said.
“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?” he said.
Obama repeatedly stressed the role of racist attitudes in society as a contributing factor in the February 2012 shooting of Martin during an evening fight with Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer. (RELATED: Zimmerman’s brother responds: Obama’s statement only reinforced ‘mythology surrounding the case’)
He also urged people to talk about the issues in their communities and churches. (RELATED: President Obama’s full remarks on Trayvon Martin)
Overall, people should ask themselves, “Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?”
“I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching,” he said.
But he sought to minimize his role in the controversy. “You know, 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,” he said.
Obama stayed away from the merits of the trial. “There are 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 … [but] once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works,” he said.
“Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government — the criminal code. And law enforcement has traditionally done it at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels,” he added.
He also tried to shift the public and media focus away from African-American youths, and toward laws and attitudes supported by Americans, most of whom are white.
Overall, he suggested, younger Americans are less racist that older Americans. “Things are getting better. … Each successive generation seems to be getting better in changing attitudes when it comes to race,” Obama said.
His speech followed the same model used by Attorney General Eric Holder in a Tuesday speech, and included some personal anecdotes.
“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,” he said.
However, unlike previous generations of leftists, Obama did not suggest any economic fixes to the root causes of African-Americans’ crime-rate.
Many left-wing advocates blame blacks’ high crime rate on economic factors, such as free trade, which has reduced well paying manufacturing jobs in Detroit and other cities.
Obama also did not offer any proposals that contradict progressives’ preferences for mass immigration and the reduced status of the nuclear family and marriage.
Many centrists and social conservatives say the high crime rate among younger blacks is partly caused by the collapse of African-American families. Roughly 70 percent of blacks are now born outside marriage. Others say large-scale immigration of low-skilled workers has increased African American unemployment.
Obama’s association of the Zimmerman case with racism and “stand your ground” laws also appears to be contradicted by the facts of the case. Martin’s family, Department of Justice investigators, the jurors in the case and even the prosecutors, who declined to accuse Zimmerman of racism, all concluded that race did not factor into the tragedy.
Zimmerman also waived his right to a defense under Florida’s expansive “stand your ground” law. Some details of the law were included in jury instructions, but it played no role in the decision, according to jurors.
Florida’s “stand your ground” law has, however, been widely used by black defendants who have successfully pleaded self-defense in criminal cases. (Related: Blacks benefit from Florida ‘stand your ground’ law at disproportionate rate)
Journalists were unable to quiz Obama about these larger issues. He quickly stepped away from the podium at the end of his statement, and ignored at least one shouted question.
“All right? Thank you, guys,” he said.