Abigail Thernstrom, vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote an article for CNN.com that shows a remarkable ignorance and insensitivity about the problem of race for African-Americans in this country. (http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/15/opinion/thernstrom-trayvon-martin-obama/index.html?hpt=hp_t4)
The author of Voting Rights – and Wrongs: The Elusive Quest for Racially Fair Elections, faulted President Obama for his statement on March 12, 2012, shortly after Trayvon Martin was shot, for saying, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon…When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids.”
Whatever criticism one might have about President Obama, one cannot say that he has gone out of his way to “lean in” toward black people. In fact, as Thernstrom herself acknowledges in her article, the president effectively distanced himself from race and from “agitators” in his speech, “A More Perfect Union,” delivered in March, 2008. “The president’s role is not to be a racial agitator,” Thernstrom writes, “and the mark of a great civil rights leader has been a determination to reject the temptations of that approach…People such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson see white racism as endemic and elevate what’s wrong with America over all that is remarkably right,” she continues.
She praised Obama for “once again” separating himself from the voices of anger on Sunday, speaking after George Zimmerman had been found “not guilty” of second degree murder and manslaughter in the death of Trayvon Martin. “But if his Justice Department brings civil rights charges against Zimmerman, as the NAACP has urged, and which it is reportedly still considering, the ugly racial politics of this prosecution will be undeniable.”
Thernstrom says that if President Obama had a son, “he would have been born to extraordinary privilege and raised with all of the advantages of two very affluent and highly educated parents. He would have gone to private schools. His path in life would have been almost as dissimilar from Trayvon’s as one could imagine.”
All that is true…but what Ms. Thernstrom does not seem to understand is that African-Americans, no matter how affluent or well-educated, are profiled all of the time. If the president had a son, he would have been subject to such profiling, and anyone who is African-American knows that. Many prominent and well-educated African-Americans have been profiled and treated quite poorly by law enforcement officers. It is a sore spot, a blazing fire in the lives of African-Americans, and time has not made it any better.
Just because Mr. Obama is president does not mean that he has forgotten what it is to be black in America. Thernstrom says that “the president …wants disadvantages Americans to believe that he and his family are one of them…despite their life of unparalleled privilege.” The bottom line is, Ms. Thernstrom, is that at the end of the day, Obama IS one of them, and he knows it.
A couple of weeks ago in New Albany, Ohio, a young black man was walking in his neighborhood. Sixteen-year old Xvavier Brandon, an honor student, was walking to school, when, out of nowhere, he found himself confronted by police. “A gun was pointed at me and handcuffs were put on me, and that’s everything that’s done to a criminal,” Brandon said.
This kid was exempt from final exams, said an article in The Columbus Dispatch, because of good test scores at his high school. He was minding his own business, in a neighborhood where he had every right to be, walking to football practice. There had been in that neighborhood, however, some break-ins. Some residents were wary and nervous. So when a resident saw Brandon walking down his street, he got nervous and called the police, telling them that there was someone walking down the street who might have something to do with the break-ins.
Brandon was unaware that he had been viewed as suspicious, profiled, one might say. He continued to walk down the street, listening to music with his headphones in his ears. He didn’t know anything was wrong until he heard a loud shout and turned around to see a gun pulled and pointed at him.
He was told to drop to the ground and was handcuffed; he was asked if he had any jewelry on him or in his backpack. The young man, on the ground and completely humiliated, says he tried to turn his face so that if anyone saw him and the police officer, they wouldn’t recognize him. It was only after another officer turned up about 15 minutes later and recognized Brandon as a teammate of his son’s on the football team that the youth was released.
Brandon was not disadvantaged. New Albany is one of the most prominent neighborhoods in the Columbus metropolitan area. One might say that Brandon is privileged and well-educated, and yet, that did not keep him from being suspected of being someone a problem in that neighborhood, and accosted by police.
Because of preconceived ideas about black people, many, many African-Americans are profiled daily. Ms. Thernstrom said that “Obama’s hypothetical son and Trayvon would have shared the same brown skin. Would that have made them interchangeable?” The answer is, unfortunately, that in many cases, the answer is “yes.”
The president’s comment or observation that had he a son he would look like Trayvon was not, therefore, out of line, or indicative of a president who “surrendered to his political instincts.” He was speaking the truth as it is for African-Americans in this country. To be sure, there are a host of problems in the African-American community; the fact that African-American youth shoot each other at alarming rates, with hardly a whimper from the larger society – is a major issue, but that does not negate the fact that African-Americans are profiled daily and that yes, if the president had a son, he would be in danger of being profiled just because of the color of his skin.
The sad truth is that white racism is endemic, and it is something that nobody really wants to deal with or talk about. The result is that bad behavior keeps on happening. George Zimmerman profiled Trayvon and, regardless of what happened afterward, Trayvon is now dead. It’s nothing new, Ms. Thernstrom. It is part of the way African-Americans live…
A candid observation ….