I don't know when we're going to have another Black president. I suspect it won't be for a while. So I'm going to show my hand a little more tonight and say that our current president can serve our country differently than any of those who preceded him: because he is Black. Not just because all the little White kids can now look at the Black kid sitting next to them and think, "Hey, he looks like the President!" Or because all the little Black boys can touch their fuzzy buzz cuts and know their hair feels like the President's hair. All that is great. Fantastic. Revolutionary really. But there's even more at stake here than the development of our children's racial identities. (And believe me, I think our children's racial identities are REALLY important.) So here it is:
President Obama can see things no other president has been able to see.
And no, I don't think he has stopped the rising of the oceans, or closed the hole in the ozone, or any of those other things he was chided for suggesting he might be able to do with a Moses-like wave of the staff. But I do think he has the gift of sight. He can see what Black people see.
Now I know I'm stepping out here a little bit because (a) we White folks don't really like to talk about this very much and (b) I'm a White person, so how do I claim to know what Black folks see. But I'm just going to step right on out there anyway because what I do know, is how racism works. And not just racism, but any kind of oppression. It works, in part, because it is invisible to those who benefit from it. White people don't experience racism, so we have the privilege of believing it might not really exist.
Here's an example. I'm a White person who has lived most of my life in predominantly White communities. And I have always known about studies that show the disparities in health outcomes between White and Black Americans. I have known that Black Americans have a shorter lifespan than their White counterparts. I knew these numbers intellectually. I knew them hypothetically. But still part of me was willing to believe these disparities really had to do with class. Or access to health care. But not race. At least not entirely. I was able to fool myself this way until I moved to a predominantly Black community and began to see just how often Black people die. I didn't know that almost every week I would meet someone who had recently lost a loved one. To diabetes. To sickle cell. To gun violence. To pregnancy complications. Men, women. Middle class, working class, poor. With health insurance, without. Twenty years old. Thirty. Forty. Dead. Not just numbers on a page, but actual people alive one day and dead the next.
Remember in 2004 when Gwen Ifill asked John Edwards and Dick Cheney what they would do to remedy the rapidly increasing rate of HIV contraction among African American women? They both answered, quite unapologetically, "Uh, I don't know anything about that, Gwen." That's what I'm talking about: you can't serve a community if you can't see them.
The Black American experience is different than the White American experience. Sometimes its quantifiable, sometimes it isn't. But nearly always, it's undetectable to the dominant White world. To the Beltway. To the Capitol Building. To the White House. Except right now, something's different.
Right now we have a first lady who knows what it feels like to learn that her great, great, great grandmother was sold away from her family at age six. A first lady who no doubt hugs her young daughters and imagines that tiny little girl forced to leave her parents, to work, thanklessly, likely beaten, probably raped, decidedly not free. Undoubtedly she is the first first lady who has lived this part of the American story.
And now when a prominent Black scholar has been arrested for being annoyed that police questioned him for breaking into his own home, we have a President who reflects openly with the press about what might happen if he were to lock himself out of his home. We have a President who knows the Black man rules. He knows it doesn't matter if the house is his house; if he tries to mess with the lock he will likely be presumed a burglar. A White president just can't know that. Because when we lock ourselves out, we find a window to climb in. Case closed. So when we hear about Henry Louis Gates, and his neighbor who called the police, and the officer who made the arrest even after seeing proof that this was indeed Professor Gates' home, it can feel like a freak occurrence. Like maybe it was because he's Black, or maybe he's just a little paranoid. But we don't have to worry about those kinds of blind spots right now; we have a President whose vision is not impaired by such a luxury.
And now, when a volunteer whose duty it is to keep a neighborhood safe, shoots a fifteen-year-old black boy because he has a hood on his head and a bulge in his pocket, we have a President who tells us that if he had a son, he would have looked a lot like that boy. We have a President who knows it is but for luck (if that's what you want to call it) that he himself has lived long enough to serve this country. He knows because he has had to be very careful. My guess is: our Presdient has never opened a bottle of water without paying for it first; never reached into the glove box for the registration without being asked to do so; never climbed in the window of his house; never carried a bag of Skittles in his pocket. And so he has survived.
For the first time ever, the stories and experiences of our President and his family are African American stories. And for the first time ever, the stories and experiences of African Americans are immediately accessible to the President and his family. And that, like so many other aspects of this man's presidency, has had an impact on my family.
Three fifths of my family is Black. And I don't claim to know what it feels like to be my children, but I do know what if feels like to be their mother. To teach my daughter about enslavement, about the middle passage, about children separated from their families. To tell my sons they must not tackle on the playground, even if other kids are tackling, even if everyone's having fun, it doesn't matter: they are not allowed to tackle. To know our boys could get shot for standing in the wrong place at the wrong time and that the wrong place and time could be anywhere at anytime. Having a President who can see all this, who knows all this without explanation, who understands the reality of my children's lives, makes a difference.
I'm not saying we have to re-elect Barack Obama because he's Black. We have to re-elect him if we think he's done well and will continue to do so. But it's also true that every person brings something different to their work--skill set, past experience, personality, etc.--and it's legitimate to note that one of these things that differentiates us is our perspective. By virtue of living a brown-skinned life, this President's point of view allows him to know our country in a way no other President ever has.