Politics is, by its nature, about controversy and conflict. We argue about first principles; we compete for constituencies; we dispute each other’s policy predictions. But sometimes our disagreements are not about values or interest-group politics. Sometimes politics is about a simple experience that you’ve endured that most Americans have not. An experience like walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars, or an experience like having your child sent home from school for expressing his religious beliefs. It is this aspect of our politics that made President Obama’s remarks about Trayvon Martin so compelling. It is also the defect that has made his presidency so disappointing.
Not everyone was a fan of the president’s impromptu speech. “What Obama did, I think, unfortunately, today, is to re-racialize” the Martin-Zimmerman incident, said Charles Krauthammer. When the president said that he identified with Trayvon Martin, Sean Hannity asked, “Is that the president admitting that [because] he was part of the Choom Gang and he smoked pot and he did a little blow,” he can relate to Martin?
There can be no doubt that there is a uniquely American industry of race hucksterism, in which activists rise to prominence by accusing others of racism where there is none. But this should not blind us to the fact that the everyday experience of many black Americans is different from that of whites and immigrants.
This is what the president meant when he said, “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.” Experiences and history. Two concepts that conservatives, in every other context, appreciate as essential to the fabric of any culture.
“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 continued. “That includes me.”
“There are probably 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. 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 used to dismiss this kind of talk. Sticks and stones and all that. A woman clutching her purse in an elevator isn’t the same thing as being denied a job, or an apartment, because of your race.
But then I had the experience I wrote about a few months ago, of getting unusual treatment — especially from security guards — in the weeks and months after 9/11. It was a revelation. For a brief period of time, I caught a glimpse into the kind of existence the president was describing, one in which you feel like the world, on some subtle, unspoken level, isn’t giving you a fair shake.
It may be that disparities in prosecution and incarceration are entirely innocent, that they’re not inflected with racial bias. But either way, the plight of young black men is one that cries out for more public attention.
There are blacks of good will who see racism in innocent gestures, in a ten-times-bitten, twenty-times-shy kind of way. And there are whites of good will who are puzzled, and annoyed, by black sensitivities, because they’ve never themselves experienced discrimination, and bristle at being called racists when they are not.
What makes the president so good when he talks about race is something that we tend to deemphasize about him: that he is half black and half white. He has firsthand knowledge, on a familial level, with the experience of both sides. He recognizes that it’s not racist to be concerned about civil order. And yet he has experienced the kind of subtle prejudice that — while it hasn’t hurt his career — does make it harder for many African-Americans to feel that they can fully integrate into the broader American community.
It’s this character trait in the president that made him seem so promising as a presidential candidate. He seemed like the kind of guy who, even if he disagreed with you, respected where you were coming from, and would try to find common ground.
But that isn’t how Obama has governed. While Candidate Obama talked about Purple America, President Obama often dismisses the concerns of his opponents as those of mouth-breathing, know-nothing partisan hacks.
And while the president so eloquently described the prejudice faced by black men in America today, he shares the prejudices of his class, of the coastal elite. “It’s not surprising, then, they get bitter,” Obama said in 2008 about blue-collar whites who supported his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton. “They cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Even worse, Obama’s public policies betray the prejudices of someone who has never met a payroll, served a customer, or complied with a federal regulation.
Prejudice is a part of life. Our own life experiences will always shape how we view the world. But the most successful public figures are those who can transcend their own experiences and speak to a diverse swath of Americans. Reagan did that. Clinton did that. Obama can do that — on a few issues. But not on enough.