For more than four years, I have said that I liked candidate Barack Obama better than I like President Obama. Candidate Obama addressed the question of race head-on when pressured to distance himself from Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Chicago pastor who led him to Christianity. But President Obama has been a different story.
According to research conducted by Daniel Q. Gillion, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, in Obama’s first two years in office, the nation’s first Black president made fewer speeches and offered fewer executive policies on race than any Democratic president since 1961.
Frederick C. Harris, director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, noted that Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address was the first by any president since 1948 to not mention poverty or the poor.
In the words of scholar Michael Eric Dyson, “This president runs from race like a Black man runs from a cop.”
Obama’s first comment on Trayvon Martin was that if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon. But he didn’t say what he would do to make sure Black male teenagers are not treated the way Trayvon was treated by George Zimmerman.
Obama’s first words in the aftermath of Zimmerman’s acquittal were predictably insipid.
In his written statement, Obama said: “The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.”
To quote another president, I thought, “Well, there he goes again.”
But last Friday, candidate Barack Obama and President Barack Obama finally became one. He spoke with passion, without the aid of a TelePrompTer or notes, about what it’s really like to be a Black man in America.
“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 told reporters in the White House briefing room. “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.”
He explained, “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.”
While being candid about how Whites generally treat Blacks, President Obama was equally frank when he said a Black person faces a greater likelihood of being killed by another African-African than by a White person.
“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.”
The president demonstrated real courage by addressing race in America without being forced to as was the case with Rev. Wright. Moreover, he challenged us not to let the last chapter of Tayvon’s life be marked a misguided not guilty verdict.
“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.”