Zimmerman and race: Obama says US not a post-racial society

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New Delhi, July 20: Last night US President Barack Obama made an unscheduled statement on the raging controversy over race relations in America since George Zimmerman was acquitted over the shooting of the unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, and said the US was still not "a post-racial society".

After some plain speaking he said "appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy" was for Americans to look at honestly themselves to ask if they are free of prejudice.

"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," Obama said at the White House.

Why the distrust?

He tried to explain why the African American community was agitated. "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," he said.

"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 happened 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."

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Outrage in US

These remarks at personal level came as he was coming under growing criticism for his failure to respond to strong public outrage. On Saturday, another wave of demonstrations were outside federal buildings in over 100 US cities.

The protests seem to be building up a massive show of distrust and race issue debate as the African American community prepares for the next month rally in Washington for the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech.

In his Friday's statement, Obama did invoke a line from King's famous speech when he said Americans should take part in an act of "soul-searching" and ask themselves: "Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the colour of their skin, but the content of their character?"

Progress on tolerance not enough

However, Obama did not lose sight that he was the President of United States and tempered the remarks with a focus on progress in race relations.

"I don't want us to lose sight that things are getting better," he said. "Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race."

He said the generations of Americans had made significant strides toward race tolerance, but added: "It doesn't mean we're in a post-racial society. It doesn't mean that racism is eliminated."

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