During his surprise remarks about the George Zimmerman verdict Friday, President Obama talked at length not only about race, but also about his experience as a black man in America. Obama’s comments remain as conflicted as they were sometimes brave–evidenced by some of the suspicion and vitriol lodged against him in mainstream, independent and social media following the press conference. The short speech stands out as one of the few times that the president has talked explicitly about race and the problem of racism. But Obama’s remarks are also notable for what he did not address, and what so rarely gets addressed when we discuss racism today: white America’s responsibility for it.
Obama rightly claimed that he could have been Trayvon Martin 35 years ago. Those who immediately took to Twitter to remind us that Obama didn’t grow up in a ghetto are correct. But they should be reminded that Sanford, Fla., is a majority white, yet mixed neighborhood–and far from a ghetto. Those who remind us that Obama attended private schools should know that racism remains alive and well in those institutions. Yes, Obama attended Columbia University in the early 80s–during a time when a whites-only fellowship was offered; in fact, the fellowship never went away. And yes, Obama attended Harvard University, just up the street from where professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct four years ago–on suspicion that he was breaking into what turned out to be his own home. Those who think that racial profiling somehow only happens in “ghettos,” which in this case is code for black neighborhoods often orchestrated for poverty, should be informed that black bodies are even blacker among white ones.
But Barack Obama hasn’t only attended institutions that have historically created unfair advantages for white students, or questioned black professors who teach there.
Barack Obama has been a politician in the United States where, for the past five years, he’s been continually harassed about this citizenship. A convincing rumor originally started by Hillary Clinton’s supporters in 2008, Obama’s dark skin and lineage cast doubt on his ability to campaign for president. Unlike any other candidate, Obama was forced to provide a copy of his birth certificate in order to illustrate his capacity to serve if elected. And unlike any other president, the rumor that the president may have been born in another country persists. That’s because Obama truly is unlike any other president–he’s a black one. And Friday’s remarks remind us that he, too, remembers what it’s like to not only be the nation’s first black president, but also what it’s like to be the black man in an elevator when a white woman clutches her purse.
Which is why some of Obama’s earnest comments about racial profiling remain at critical odds with his potential decision to tap the New York Police Department’s Ray Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security. Under Kelly, stop-and-frisk has disproportionately targeted New York’s black and brown residents, the vast majority of whom are neither carrying drugs nor arms. Despite its futile consequences in an era of low crimes rates that are only decreasing, Kelly continues to defend racial profiling under stop-and-frisk. Obama’s powerful words lose meaning when he muses about appointing leaders that perpetuate the type of racism that thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest.
The 2008 presidential campaign trail was the only other time that Obama ever spoke about race as explicitly and at such length as he did Friday. In that speech, he not only talked about blacks and whites, but he also talked about Natives, Latinos and Asians. And when he did address blacks and whites in the bulk of his words, he did so nearly on par: using the words “black” or “African American” 48 times, and using the word “white” 30 times. He made clear that the nation would never move forward on fundamental issues like education, healthcare, or the economy unless we first tackle the issue of race in America. “Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now,” claimed then-candidate Obama. And here were are, five years later, in what Obama called the racial stalemate we’ve been fixed in for far too long.
On Friday, Obama used the words “black” or “African American” 17 times, and the word “white” only once. At times, the president appeared to be the Explainer-in-Chief, clarifying for white folks a history and legacy that they, too, share–but in drastically different ways, and usually as benefit. Yet, by not specifically addressing this audience, by silencing whiteness and choosing to center again and again on black young men, Obama gave whiteness a pass. He gave it power by masking it, and making it silent.
While he warned black folks against violence, which he said would dishonor Trayvon Martin, he remained silent about the little violence we do know about–when a white woman attacked 73-year-old R&B legend Lester Chambers following the verdict. And rather than convening a national conversation about race–which would mean having frank conversation about white supremacy and privilege, Obama talked about his daughters. Yes, Malia, Sasha and their friends are different, but that’s likely due to their security detail, and to the fact that they live in a world that most black schoolgirls simply do not.
Five years ago, Obama reminded us that we’re still bound to a terrible past, and that, as a nation, we tend to treat race as spectacle. The Zimmerman verdict is only further proof of that. But it also feels like an opportunity–and hopefully one in which we can dialogue not only about blacks, but also about whites and whiteness.