It seems … I can’t quite call it a good moment, since what just happened down in Sanford, Florida, is decidedly un-good, but an opportune one to think about race in Barack Obama’s America. I never went in for that “post-racial America” foolishness (at least, I’m pretty sure I didn’t!), and in fact I believed from the start that there would be remarkable examples of both progress and powerful backlash against that progress. Four-plus years later, however, that looks only half right, and sad to say, it’s the depressing half that’s correct: Once you get past the fact of Obama’s election itself, there hasn’t really been much racial progress, but the backlash has still been ferocious. One might have thought that Obama could, on occasion, gently educate white Americans about some facts of black life, but of course his enemies won’t permit that. Thus, the cruel paradox that the country’s first black president can’t really talk about race.
Think back to when Obama made his only substantive remarks about Trayvon Martin back in March 2012, when he said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin.” Obama said other things that day. Like this: “I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this. And that everybody pull together.”
That was a nice thing to say, and the kind of thing I suppose a president ought to say. But it was a lie, and he knew it, and we all know it. Every parent in America didn’t relate to being Trayvon Martin’s parents. Every black parent did. But not many white parents. Most white parents, I’d wager, thought to themselves deep down what we all know to be true but don’t like to say—that what happened to Trayvon in all likelihood would never have happened to their kid, because George Zimmerman wouldn’t have felt threatened by their kid in the first place, or even if he had felt threatened, he’d damn well have thought twice before shooting a white kid, because he’d know in his bones that white lives are accorded more value in this society than black ones, and you don’t go around shooting white people and expect not to pay a price.
So what Obama did there was pretend. He had to pretend that our legal system works perfectly and that race doesn’t exist. I’m not really blaming him, you understand. This is the situation he’s in. The rules, whoever made them, are such that he is not allowed to “racialize.”
So imagine, instead, that Obama had talked that day in the Rose Garden about growing up black—about the times, and undoubtedly there were many as there are in the lives of most young black men, that cops followed him when he wasn’t doing anything wrong, that he heard calls for security on store public-address systems shortly after he walked in the door, that he kept a list in his head of things he shouldn’t do in public lest he arouse suspicion. (Jesse Washington of the Associated Press has been very good on the “Black Male Code.”)
To me, and to many millions of Americans, such a testimony from the president of the United States would have been powerful stuff. And it surely would have led millions of decent and empathetic white Americans to think hard, maybe for the first time, about some of the things they don’t have to worry about that black parents have to consider every time their child walks out the door.
But alas, there are other Americans who aren’t decent and empathetic. The right-wing media would have immediately started howling about how Obama was racializing the incident (as if it wasn’t Zimmerman who racialized it!). The fury would have been possibly greater than any we’ve seen since he became president, which is saying something—he hates law enforcement, he doesn’t want people to defend themselves, he hates white people. Glenn Beck said all that, remember, on a far slimmer pretext.
It is certainly true that the one time Obama stuck a foot in these waters, during the Skip Gates situation, he did so poorly. A president doesn’t call police officers “stupid,” no matter what the circumstance. But I also think he may have over-learned the lesson of that controversy. He’s clearly extremely cautious about going near any issue that touches on race. His statement on the verdict, released yesterday, doesn’t touch on race at all.
As I said, he has understandable political reasons for not doing so. But should a president really let a fringe population whose minds are drenched in poison dictate his actions, even if they do have the run of a cable-news network? No. History isn’t going to judge him on whether he outsmarted Roger Ailes. History is going to judge him on whether he rose to the most demanding occasions, and it is going to ask, as it asks of all presidents, whether he did anything (beyond the fact of his election) to try to increase racial understanding and empathy in America.
The fact is that thanks to the Supreme Court, civil rights have arguably gone backward during his tenure; and because so many states have passed laws that permit people to carry weapons and use them any time they feel threatened, there are going to be more Trayvon Martins. Obama surely cares about this. He should forget about the people who despise him and think a little more about the ones who admire him, and he should imagine and provide the kind of leadership they want him to show.