President Obama could not have been me 35 years ago, not really. In 1978 I was tagging along with an uncle in the South Bronx to Kool DJ AJ jams at St. Mary’s Park, flipping on dirty mattresses like in Lauryn Hill’s “Everything Is Everything.” I was not raised in sea-breezy Hawaii, nor were most (or any) of my caretakers White American. Yet and still, I appreciated the president’s assertion last Friday that “Trayvon could’ve been me 35 years ago” as a way of illustrating that George Zimmerman would’ve stalked a 17-year-old Obama down those same infamous Florida streets just as suspiciously.
Speaking with Jeffrey Wright (Basquiat) in Brooklyn two years ago, the actor told me he considered President Obama’s election as “much more a cultural victory than a political victory; the things I was expecting were related to cultural progress more so than political progress.” That is to say, the importance of a Black United States president for African-American youth (like my own two sons) to look up to and emulate was far more significant than his actual successes or failures as a president. For me, as for Wright, the political progress of the Obama election was always secondary to the cultural.
That said, I appreciated the context President Obama sought to provide for the Trayvon Martin tragedy last Friday. Sincerity is rare for politicians; I personally sensed heartfelt authenticity in his statements about racial profiling in department stores and the click of Whites locking car doors when Blacks approach. Yes, of course it’s a real thing: I recall approaching a car for directions in Atlanta and hearing that click myself, the driver staring straight ahead for dear life waiting on his streetlight to turn green. But given Obama’s struggle to remain seen as the impartial president of the entire United States (not just Black America), I hardly expected him to say anything else about the Zimmerman trial at all beyond his initial statement.
Clearly issues gain deeper resonance when addressed by the leader of the so-called free world. President Obama admitting that our comparative social progress as a nation “doesn’t mean we’re in a post-racial society” shouts a weighty voice of dissent to anyone still oblivious enough to believe that myth. Even as some White Americans have been willing to elect a Black man to the highest office of the land, twice, other Whites view Blacks in hoodies in their neighborhood and go grab their guns. The notion of 2013 post-racialism gets all but flushed down the toilet when disavowed by the POTUS. And hallelujah.
Obama invoking Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by suggesting we strive to judge people “based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character” was a definite Black American signifier not lost on anyone of color, a clear “my president” moment. Such turns of phrase from Obama still make African-Americans swell with pride in certain circles, but no small amount of disillusion has long ago set in from the more politically astute in the Black community. And no, not just the Tavis Smiley criticisms that so often smack of opportunism.
President Obama dropped the word naïve three times in last week’s speech, and it’s easy to view his entire (seemingly unscripted) response as a bit naïve, or at the very least typical political speechifying. A meatier, more satisfying reaction to the Zimmerman trial might’ve been some sort of executive order magically (or at least legally) abolishing racial profiling. An ordinance to eliminate Stand Your Ground laws throughout the United States would’ve carried some real weight. Even an executive stand against the stop and frisk laws that disproportionately impact Black America would’ve been something concrete.
And ultimately, too much to wish for.
Obama instead shied away from instituting any “five-point plan” or “grand new federal program” that would codify any of his novel ideas for moving forward post-Zimmerman. He instead suggested that we as Americans all do some soul-searching about our own racial biases, that we reduce mistrust of one another. He mentioned brainstorming ways to support and strengthen Black American males, and encouraged reconsideration of Stand Your Ground laws without politically mandating anything at all with any of his executive powers. Detractors might call that rhetoric.
I would rather President Obama have spoken up for Black boys and our community’s unique African-American context than not have said anything at all, to be sure. Certain passages gave White folks an out for their angst—mentions about Black-on-Black homicides and Blacks’ disproportionate numbers in the prison industrial complex (my words not his, obviously)—but he never outright defended the Zimmermans of the country.
Still, with three more years in office, this citizen still holds out hope for an Obama who takes the podium to blast the hypocrisy of the Marissa Alexander verdict, an Obama who might bless Mumia Abu-Jamal with a presidential pardon one day. I have a dream.