07/19/2013 05:22 EDT | Updated 09/18/2013 05:12 EDT

Obama wades into race, tells of his own experiences being racially profiled

WASHINGTON - Barack Obama has been hesitant since winning the White House to weigh in on hot-button race issues, but the ongoing uproar about the Trayvon Martin case prompted America's first black president to make a remarkable plea on Friday for understanding of the country's African-American community.

In a surprise visit to the White House briefing room, Obama waded into the debate still raging about the not-guilty verdict handed down last weekend to the black teenager's killer, George Zimmerman — and in intensely personal comments, the president addressed the racial tensions that still simmer in the U.S. five decades after the civil rights movement.

"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," said Obama, adding that he could have been Martin 35 years ago.

"The African-American community is ... 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."

Obama also made personal references to the racial profiling many believe resulted in Martin's fatal shooting by Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watch volunteer. The unarmed teen died in February 2012 as he walked to his father's home in a gated Florida community on a rainy evening, his hood pulled up on his sweatshirt.

Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter in Martin's death in a verdict that's ignited largely peaceful marches and protests across the country for days. The teen's slaying has also spurred a national debate on racial profiling and how young black men are regarded by U.S. society at large.

Obama said he's often been viewed with suspicion and distrust as a black man.

"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 probably 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."

Ever since his election in 2008, Obama has been reluctant to weigh in on race issues, clearly cognizant of how quickly discussions of race can become toxic in the United States. His comments on Friday are among the most extensive and personal he's ever made on race.

The president reportedly decided on Thursday night to make his public remarks after discussing the Zimmerman verdict over the past week with friends and family. Obama, who spoke off the cuff for 17 minutes to an astonished White House press corps, also went into greater detail than his staff expected him to.

The president also made plain his feelings on the controversial "stand your ground" laws that played a role in Zimmerman's acquittal. Although Zimmerman's defence team didn't ask for an immunity hearing under the Florida law, the instructions provided to jurors borrowed heavily from the statute.

"I know that there's been commentary about the fact that the 'stand your ground' laws in Florida were not used as a defence in the case," he said.

"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?"

Obama added that anyone who supports such a society should ask themselves: "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."

Not surprisingly, Obama's comments were met with immediate vitriol by conservative commentators who accused him of "race-baiting."

"I thought when you were elected president, you were president of all skin colours," tweeted Todd Starnes, a Fox News host.

Conservative radio host Tammy Bruce sent out this tweet: "I had no idea Obama sucker-punched a watch volunteer & then bashed his head In. Who knew?"

Yet in his unscripted comments, Obama also acknowledged the issue many conservatives accuse the left of ignoring — black-on-black crime.

"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're disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It's not to make excuses for that fact," he said.

"The African-American community is also not naive in understanding that, statistically, somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably, statistically, more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else."

But what vexes black Americans, Obama said, is when the violence that plagues some African-American neighbourhoods is not put into historical and socio-economic context by those who point to it.

"Black folks ... understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighbourhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country," he said.

"And that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history. 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, or that context is being denied."

He urged Americans to do some "soul-searching" amid the debate on the Zimmerman verdict.

"There's been talk about, should we convene a conversation on race? I haven't seen that be particularly productive when, you know, politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have," he said.

Instead, the president urged families, churches and workplaces to initiate conversations on race in the painful aftermath of the Martin case.

"That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy," he said. "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."

The president also held out hope for a better future for American race relations thanks to his children's generation.

"When I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see 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."