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President Barack Obama finally told his truth about being black and male in America, a powerful 19-minute testimony that black people have been waiting to hear and white people needed to know.
In a deeply personal reflection about racial polarization, Obama used his White House bully pulpit to steadfastly align himself with black men in America and share their collective pain of racial discrimination and cultural isolation.
“Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Obama said Friday in the White House briefing room. “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.”
For Obama, a man of bi-racial heritage, – his mother was white, his father Kenyan – he could no longer walk a tightrope along the racial fault lines. The president may have agonized over precisely what to say last week, but he ultimately decided to speak out.
It was the right decision.
For all the black men in America who suffer racial indignities; for all the black men who have been called the N-word by racists; for all the black men who feel marginalized — and invisible — in this republic, Obama, the nation’s first black president, stood with them.
“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,” Obama said. “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.”
I was struck by Obama’s candid explanation of the constant emotional agony that many black Americans have endured for decades as well as the continued racial challenges facing black men regardless of social status.
The president’s testimony was also noteworthy for what he didn’t say: “A rising tide lifts all boats” — which has been Obama’s weary mantra when reluctantly confronting the issue of race.
But after days of soul searching, Obama preached to the choir while addressing black Americans last week, but he also spoke directly to white Americans by explaining in historic terms the harsh realities of racist behavior directed toward black men.
It was a truthful tutorial on race from the perspective of a black commander-in-chief.
“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,” Obama said. “That includes me.”
And why shouldn’t the president talk honestly about race to the American people? Why shouldn’t Obama, as a black man, share his thoughts about the black male experience in America?
Obama’s remarks on race couldn’t have come at a more critical time – six days after a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of killing Trayvon Martin, a black unarmed teenager who Zimmerman followed and shot to death because Zimmerman thought the 17-year-old looked suspicious. Since the shooting, white and black Americans have been sharply divided and many African Americans urged Obama to speak out.
Last week, Eugene Robinson, a black columnist for The Washington Post, wrote that Obama is not the right person to lead a national conversation on race.
“President Obama is not the best person to lead the discussion. Through no fault of his own, he might be the worst,” Robinson wrote before Obama made his comments about race.
I disagree – and I would also argue that Obama is already not-so-subtly leading a much-needed conversation about race—a conversation that Americans are engaged in right now while sitting in living rooms, offices, churches, barber shops and beauty salons all across America.
Meanwhile, Obama’s right-wing critics are claiming that he’s dividing blacks and whites by taking America in the wrong direction. And talk show host Tavis Smiley, a frequent critic of Obama, called the president’s remarks “weak as pre-sweetened Kool Aid” and accused Obama of shrinking from his moral responsibilities.
We’ll look back on Obama’s extraordinary White House testimony as a defining moment in his presidency, an unprecedented come-to-Jesus moment where Obama spoke to the nation as a proud black man who stands in solidarity with other black men who have felt the sting of racism.
This may become one of those profound moments in American history where years from now black grandsons may ask their grandfathers this moving question: “Where were you when President Obama reminded America that he was a black man?”