It’s a measure of how far we’ve come and how far we have to go on race relations in America that the quotidian protective strategies of the life of an African American man, the everyday stuff of his existence, qualified on Friday as BREAKING NEWS.
In some ways, yeah, it makes sense that when the president of the United States speaks at a news conference, suddenly and in the middle of the day and with no TelePrompTer in sight, it deserves that breathless phrase, which we’ve almost gotten inured to.
But Friday, in a news conference that caught the White House press corps completely unprepared, President Obama spoke for seventeen minutes in the White House Briefing Room, and ventured to reset the terms for national dialogue on race in America, universalizing the source of the solution — it’s about all of us — even as he personalized, in a powerful and galvanizing way, what it means right now to be black in America. Post-Trayvon Martin America. For much of America, it seems, it was breaking news indeed.
In the six days since the George Zimmerman verdict exonerated him of Martin’s killing and effectively revived the ballistic ethos of the Wild West within the lethal confines of the Sunshine State, African Americans have been stunned, saddened and deeply hurt by this latest act of attempted existential marginalization.
The pain ran longer and deeper than that, of course, even in the short term. You could trace it back to just after the Boston Marathon bombings, when CNN’s John King breathlessly reported the suspect was “a dark-skinned male,” in a brainless catch-all description that managed to be both premature and poisonously wrong at the same time.
The new African American malaise could certainly be traced back to June 25, when the United States Supreme Court dismantled the Voting Rights Act, the most robust, productive guarantor of voting rights in generations.
We can thank Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas for voting to invalidate Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, and sending to Congress the responsibility for updating the act’s foundational formula of application, at a time when Congress, predictably deadlocked on even the idea of performing its basic legislative functions, couldn’t order lunch without a committee hearing.
But the verdict on July 13 was, in some ways, the ultimate slap in the face, not just for African Americans generally, but especially for young black males. It was maybe the ultimate ratification of the idea that black lives, and especially black male lives, had a fractional value in the life of America. Three-fifths? Maybe. Maybe less than that.
That’s what President Obama was responding to Friday. The president was the stand-in for all of black America; some of his speech was clearly painful for him; the halts and hesitations in his delivery mirrored the difficulty black Americans have in reconciling the oppositional aspects of our place in the national identity.
There was some of the raw rhetorical power and authority of previous Obama speeches about the national third-rail: his 2008 race speech in Philadelphia, for example, or his speech at Morehouse College. But the president went further on Friday, doing the ultimate stand-in role in a stunningly frank admission in an already frank talk.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Chyron graphic on MSNBC:
PRES.: I’VE HEARD CAR DOORS LOCK WHEN I WALKED BY
“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.”
Some thought leaders and cocktail-party conversationalists have made great use of an empty question intended as hypothetical speculation of the president’s fidelity to matters important to black people. “Is Barack Obama a black president or a president who happens to be black?” It’s sophistry that doesn’t deserve the attention it gets.
In our identity-driven, brand-besotted culture, the fact that no one in America just “happens” to be anything means the question dignifies a distinction without a difference. No president just “happens” into his identity, any more than his predecessors’ or his constituents’ identities happen to them.
With his Briefing Room address on Friday, Obama did away with any attempts at equalizing the discomforts of blacks and whites. For anyone who’s been paying attention, for those who remember the Philadelphia and Morehouse speeches, it was obvious: Barack Obama was the black president he’s always been, even as he embraced the power of the legal system, flawed as it is, the way any president would; and the power of the human bandwidth for change. The way every president should.
That was clear when he offered some proposals vis-à-vis policy. “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.”
Then, in what was, well, a warning shot at the Stand Your Ground laws, including Florida’s, he said: “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. …
“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 then the president got specific, in ways we haven’t seen before. “… [W]e need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African American boys. … 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?”
And then he got specifically personal. “… [F]inally, 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.”
Years from now, this speech, and especially its last few hundred words, may come to be read and interpreted in the context of the wider, grander, more dispositive American mission statements, the ones that best define us as a nation.
The Declaration, of course. The Emancipation Proclamation. The Gettysburg Address. The fireside chats and wartime addresses of FDR. JFK’s announcement of the moonshot program. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. These convey what makes us certainly not what we always are, but just as certainly what we aspire to be.
With a speech seventeen minutes long, President Obama made another bid not so much for the history books as for the start of a conversation we as a nation desperately don’t want to have. Which is, of course, the problem.
It’s the problem whose consequence is laid bare in the speech: the indelible thread of indignities, the link between not being able to catch a cab and being the automatic recipient of undue attention from security guards at a retail store; the absolute connection between being the object of stop-and-frisk laws as an everyday African American male and having your administration’s objectives stopped and frisked, your appointees rejected, your nationality questioned and your heritage debated as the not-so-everyday African American male who happens to be the president of the United States.