Monday, July 29, 2013

On being a black president

I must confess that my first reaction to Pres. Obama's remarks about Trayvon Martin was outrage. Here was one more young black man victimized by white racism, and the president asked us to reflect on his fate. Where were the suggestions for job and education programs for young black men, where a re-examination of our voracious prison system, where the bold call for an alliance of people of color and white anti-racists to resist the new racism as we see it in voter identification laws, in "stand your ground" laws, and progressively more punitive treatment of young black men?
But soon I realized that this reaction was unfair and completely unreasonable. The President can barely get his cabinet members approved by the Senate. The House of Representatives seems to have only one goal, to prevent the president from doing anything useful at all. So how could we expect him to call for a new crusade against racism?
But that made me think about being a black president in the United States today. The United States is still a white country when it comes to power, to getting one's way, to determining who gets what, who is a full citizen and who needs to be on the defensive every day. Barack Obama finds himself at the head all of this white power structure. His position is to execute laws and regulations, frequently supported by people motivated by racism. As the head of this white establishment, he compromises his integrity because he is not only the President of people of color but also of white citizens, many of whom are deeply racist. He has to restrain himself and refrain from proposing actions to mitigate the worst injustices white citizens and their institutions commit every day.
Yes, it is progress of a sort to have a black president. Not long ago that was completely unthinkable. But this black president and any future one for years to come will be in a terribly ambiguous position that must surely be painful for him, of being unable to resist racism where he encounters it and being unable to counteract it by positive government initiatives.
When, hopefully soon, we elect a woman as president, we will place her in the same ambiguous and no doubt painful situation.

We owe President Obama a debt of gratitude for exposing himself to the pervasive racism in the US and making himself, occasionally, its executor. He benefits the country at significant personal cost.