The Corner

Re: The Obamas and People

Jay, what’s most striking about the Obamas’ People interview are the experiences with racism — out of all the possibilities — that they didn’t cite.

Neither claimed that they were compelled to go to segregated, substandard schools. All evidence is that they each went to decent schools.

Neither claimed that they were compelled to live in segregated areas or substandard housing. In fact, rumor has it they live in pretty decent housing right now.

Neither cited being barred from colleges or law schools on the basis of race. Indeed, given the ubiquity of affirmative-action programs, it’s highly probable that they received racially preferential treatment from such schools.

Neither claimed they were denied jobs due to race. Again, the fact that most major institutions practice affirmative action renders it probable that they were just as, if not more, likely to get jobs than similarly situated white comparatives.

Neither claimed they were denied the ability to vote or participate in the political process. The president has even joked about voting more than once in his hometown of Chicago.

Neither claimed that they were turned away from a restaurant, place of lodging, or had to eat in a segregated area.

Neither claimed they were denied a raise, promotion, transfer or were otherwise treated differently during their employment history on the basis of race.

Neither claimed a publisher refused to publish any of their work or relegated such work to a publishing racial ghetto.

The examples could go on almost interminably, including more subtle ones. Let’s stipulate that, of course, racism and discrimination exist, and that in a nation of 310 million, some instances are egregious. Nonetheless, the Obamas could at least have the grace to stipulate that the fact they have to cite getting mistaken for a valet and being asked to help get something off a shelf (even if such acts are somehow indicative of latent racism) shows the country has made impressive progress over the last 50 years.

By the way, to use Obama’s example, I’m about his age, am a professional, and, on occasion, have found myself standing in front of restaurants. I’ve never been mistaken for a valet. I have, however, been mistaken for a police officer, physician, security guard, truck driver, NFL running back, brick mason, water pipe repairman, Marine, pharmacist, store clerk — just to name a few. As opposed to the Obamas, I was never offended. There was no evidence of racial animus (in fact, some of the people making the mistake were black), and all of the occupations are honorable and worthwhile (I’ve held some of these positions, just not at the time I was so misidentified). But for the perpetually aggrieved, sometimes honest mistakes are presumptive evidence of invidious discrimination.

We can only hope that one day Mr. Obama will be mistaken for the president of the United States of America. So far, he’s given precious little indication he understands that’s what he was elected to be.

Peter Kirsanow — Peter N. Kirsanow is an attorney and a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

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