Speaking truth from power: Barack Obama on Trayvon Martin and racial profiling
By now, you’ve probably seen it. Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States, speaking publically and candidly about the experience of racial profiling. If you haven’t seen it, you’ve read the transcript, or whatever excerpts make the best copy. You’ve probably seen and heard, if not participated in, the discussions. Was it inappropriate for a sitting president to comment on the verdict? Does he risk stirring up racial tension and civil unrest? Most of those questions I cannot answer. Some, particularly those that raise the spectre of black unrest, I will not dignify with a response. But I will share some comments on what I think it means for Barack Obama to have taken that podium and said those words.
First, I think Reni Eddo-Lodge’s words bear rembering: Barack Obama has not articulated the ‘black experience.’ He is only one of us. He shares in that experience the same I and the same as Eddo-Lodge herself, though in different aspects and different degrees. He has spoken to that experience, much as I have, shared with others what being black has been for him and what he knows it can be for many. But he does not speak for us all.
I can see the comments already, because I have seen them before. “Obama isn’t black!” “Why is Obama black but George Zimmerman isn’t Hispanic!?” I cannot define these men’s racial identities. That is their right alone. I will not deny George Zimmerman his Hispanic identity for his white father; I will not deny Barack Obama his black identity for his white mother. Neither can deny me my mulatto identity nor my membership in the black community. My previous entries on the Travyon Martin case have been moot on the question of Zimmerman’s self-identity, despite the repeated accusations in comments that I was, for reasons as varied as the accuser, misrepresenting or obscuring Zimmerman’s race or racial identity and I do not wish to speak to it here. His race is his own.
Like Trayvon Martin, Barack Obama is more than a man. A man, surely, but also a symbol. A symbol of what blacks can achieve in spite of racism, in spite of inequality, in spite of violence and fear. A symbol held high to show that our fates can be of our own making, that we can overcome all the world works to hold us back. A symbol that we should dare to strive. It means a great deal to my community that he has said the words he has said, that he has stood up and spoken bluntly about the realities of racial profiling, of being feared, of being othered. To do so risked his credibility to many, for we all risk our credibility in the eyes of the whites around us when we speak about racism. It risked political blowback, as his political opponents can accuse him of politicking and inciting racial division. Perhaps most of all, it risked the anger, dismissal, and blame that follow most public statements of the kind and which weigh so heavily on the soul. But risk he did, to bear witness to the experience of systemic racism.
It is no small thing to attest publically to the realities of racism. You will be slurred: racist, race-baiter, political opportunist. You will be accused: stirring up racial tension, dividing communities, perpetuating racism. For daring to step out of line, for refusing to quietly accept the injustice and maltreatment, you will be punished. A thousand hands will volunteer to put you back in your place, to remind you who is in charge. You will need to be stronger than you ever imagined. You will need to remind yourself a thousand times that you cause is worth their abuse. You will need to know deep within that you have been wronged and that you deserve justice. When you are poor and disenfranchised, they will blame you. They will tell you to make something of yourself. They will say that blacks are the authors of your fate. They will turn away. When you are educated and successful, they will scorn you. They will take credit for your success, call you a charity case, a product of affirmative action. They will say that you stand on their shoulders. They will deem you ungrateful. When you speak of race, they will cry ‘racist.’
So whatever the shortcomings of Obama’s words, whatever realities he failed to address, whatever nuance he did not make clear, I thank him. I thank him for standing up as one of us and speaking out. I thank him for bearing witness to the struggles and the pains of so many. I thank him for using the power of his office to carry his words to ears that would never otherwise have heard. I have been vacillating to no end over the question of Obama’s ‘responsibility’ to speak out as he has. Could any of us justly demand that he do as he has done? Is the anger from within some segments of the community, who feel that a teenaged boy should not have had to die for American’s first black president to talk about racism, justified? I don’t know. I cannot bring myself to demand that anyone be an activist, that every member of an oppressed community, even one I call my own, must stand and shout. But still I cannot but feel that the weight of his office places upon his shoulders an uncommon burden.
Barack Obama has spoken truth from power, a welcome turn on a tired phrase. He said with candour and directness what we all know: that we could all be Trayvon Martin. We could all be deemed suspicious by a self-appointed community watchman with a gun and killed in ‘self-defence.’ And if we did, we would be vilified and our killer vindicated. Because we are other. Because we are a threat. Because it is prudent to keep watch for us in your communities. It wise to follow us down the street. It only makes sense to lock you car door as we pass. It’s just being careful to hold your purse a little closer while you’re alone with us in the elevator. You can’t be too careful, not when there are blacks about.
Could Barack Obama, thirty-five years ago, have been Trayvon Martin? Yes, and tomorrow, were it not for the weight of his office, he could be Howard Morgan. Everywhere he goes he will be a black male body. That will always make him a threat.