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Saturday, July 20, 2013

President Obama Explains Barack Obama - the Black Man

President Obama spoke for Trayvon Martin, the now dead victim of a Stand By Me law, when he told the media in the White House briefing room about what it's like to grow up a black man.  

"Trayvon Martin could have been me," he told a stunned audience of savvy media folks, who admit they were caught by surprise because of the President's spontaneous candor.  Although other president's have certainly spoken eloquently about racial inequality in America, only President Barack Obama can explain, with credibility, what it's like to be Barack Obama, a Black man.

It's nearly impossible for white people to explain our nation's often irrational racial divide. Black people in America were largely brought here in chains, totally against their will. Most of them were forced to live like animals who were bought, sold and used as beasts of burden until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  Although Lincoln's watershed proclamation is as important as the Magna Carta of 1215, the words have been difficult to operationalize.

Of course, slavery is forever banned since 1863, but blacks living in many places continue to experience fear of racial violence.  

President Obama explained it from his own experience, "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. 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."

President Obama spoke in 2013 about Barack Obama, the Black man.  Yet, this experience was attempted in 1960, by a white man who pretended to be Black.  

Perhaps the next best account of the oppressive racial experience was valiantly attempted by Caucasian journalist John Howard Griffin (1920-1980), who wrote "Black Like Me", published in 1960. Griffin sought medical assistance to make his skin look black and he shaved his head, so he looked enough like a middle aged black man to pass as a Negro as he journeyed through the segregated states of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia. His experience confirmed how Black Americans were treated like second-class citizens.  While Griffin searched for places where he could eat, rest of find a job other than menial labor, he experienced the "hate stare".  His journal described the squalor he saw, the hopelessness he witnessed and the needless inhumanity the Negroes routinely encountered by many Whites he met during his travels.

Even finding a place where he could get a drink of water on a hot day was a racial ordeal.  "I began to get thirsty, (in New Orleans)" he writes, "and asked ....where I could find a drink.  'You've got to plan ahead now,' he was told my his mentor named Sterling.  'You can't do like you used to when you were a white man. You can't just walk in anyplace and ask for a drink or use the restroom. There's a Negro cafe over in the French market about two blocks up. They got a fountain in there where you can drink'."

But, Griffin eventually returned to being White again.  His book received national acclaim, but little, if any, change was initiated by his experiences.  Negroes eventually fought and earned the right to access simple amenities like water fountains and rest rooms. Nevertheless, I highly suspect, the "hate stare" hasn't changed much among people who continue to harbor hateful racial prejudice.

Fast forward to 2013, another 53 years and President Obama is explaining, again, what Griffin wrote about.  

Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle, said the martyr Reverend Martin Luther King, who was also a victim of gun violence.

Past Presidents have moved America forward toward racial equality in a painfully slow timeline:

1863- Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation

1948- President Truman signed an Executive Order to integrate the US Military

1957 - President Eisenhower sent National Guard troops into Little Rock Arkansas to protect children who were integrating the schools, several years after the Supreme Court's Brown vs The Board of Education ruling.

1963 - President Kennedy supports the Civil Rights Act but it's not passed until after he was tragically assassinated in November 1963.

1964 - President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act

2013-  President Barack Obama explains what it's like to be a Black man in America.

The president decided the best thing to do would be to come to the White House briefing room unannounced and deliver his heartfelt remarks directly to reporters.

The president said the African-American community is not "naïve" to the fact that young African-American men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, both as victims and perpetrators, but that a lack of context adds to the public frustration.

"We understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history," he said. "So folks understand the challenges that exist for African-American boys, but they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there's no context for it and that context is being denied."

The president called for a review of the "stand your ground laws," but stopped short of calling for a national dialogue on race relations, saying attempts by politicians to drive those discussions "end up being stilted and politicized."  

"For those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these 'stand your ground' laws, I just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?" Obama asked. "If the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws."

As a nation, the president said, "We need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys." 

In my opinion, America is not as great a country as we like to believe we are, because the ugly stigma of racial discrimination continues to hang on us like the chains Negroes wore in the disgusting slave ships.

President Obama has used his life experience to finally help lift those chains.  Americans who sincerely believe we are One Nation Under God, must come to grips with our own prejudices and overcome them.  It's impossible to imagine President Obama walking down a city street where people respond by locking their car doors and women clutch their hand bags as a protective barrier against suspicion of assault.  But, imagine Barack Obama in the same scenario and we all - every one of us - knows his experience is brutally real.  Thank you, Mr. President, for explaining this in a way all Americans understand and asking us to become better people as a result.  

Our sincere condolences to Trayvon Martin's grieving parents. Prayerfully, their tragic experience will, somehow, contribute to a better America.

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