It was real, it was jarring, and it was just a little unsettling. President Barack Obama, who is half African-American, said that the youth shot by a self-described neighborhood watch captain looked like what his own son might look like. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, running for Obama's job, was appalled, saying:
What the president said in a sense is disgraceful. It's not a question of who that young man looked like.
The problem with Gingrich's outrage is that the shooting may well have had everything to do with what the young man looked like. Trayvon Martin, 17, black and wearing a hooded sweatshirt, was walking in George Zimmerman's suburban Florida neighborhood when Zimmerman, who is half white and half Hispanic, shot him. The Justice Department is investigating the shooting, which Zimmerman—who was not arrested by local police at the time—said was done in self-defense. It's impossible to know right now if Martin's race was an issue in this case, although certain details—such as Zimmerman's refusal to obey a 911 operator who told him not to follow Martin—raise questions about Zimmerman's judgment and behavior. It does appear that Zimmerman thought that the teenage black boy in a hoodie didn't belong, and that made him suspicious.
What's troubling about Gingrich's condemnation of Obama is not just what it suggests about race and the president. It's what it says about race and the presidency. Obama was elected to be president of everyone in this country—black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and everyone else. But it's insulting and unfair to expect Obama to stop being African-American just because he's president.
This doesn't mean Obama has to be an ongoing activist for African-Americans or anyone else. In fact, Obama has been relatively quiet on racial and civil rights matters. It means that his personal background brings with it a certain set of experiences, and he is bringing that perspective to the White House—and for the first time, at that high level. It's the reason diversity is an important goal in workplaces, especially in government and media and other areas where people's personal experiences are part of the end product. If newspapers hired only middle-aged reporters, they'd miss the perspective of young people and the news they make and read. If they hired only white reporters, those journalists might be able to understand, intellectually, what it's like for a black person to have trouble getting a cab (as happened to former New York Mayor David Dinkins, not just young black men in hoodies). But they'll never really understand what it feels like. Male politicians can have a personal view about contraception, and they have a right to that opinion. But they'll never understand what it's like to worry that they might be pregnant, and lie awake at night wondering how they'd manage it physically, emotionally, and at work.
That's why Obama's comments about Martin were so compelling. Obama is president and has a whole team of trained Secret Service agents on hand to protect him. But he knows what it means to have someone be afraid of you just because you're black and don't seem to fit in in the neighborhood in which you are walking. It's only because Obama's election was on television and his face is in the paper almost every day that he doesn't appear to be a "suspicious" person in that big white mansion in Northwest D.C.—although that would explain the mentality of the "birthers" who still can't accept that someone who looks like Obama is living, legally, in the White House.
The same was true when the president relayed how he felt about the episode involving Cambridge, Mass. police and Harvard Law School professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. Gates, back from a trip to China, was trying to gain entrance into his own home, and someone called the police to report a possible break-in. Police arrived, and Gates ended up being arrested for disorderly conduct after a verbal confrontation. Was it racial? Was it just a matter of two men, both of whom might have been accustomed to being deferred to, being—in their minds—disrespected by the other? Perhaps it was a lot of factors. Obama, asked about the episode, said the police "acted stupidly," and the president was roundly criticized for having the nerve to criticize law enforcement in the case. Perhaps it was impolitic, but it was real. Obama, unlike many of his critics, understands what it is like to have someone assume you are in the wrong place if you are a black man in a fashionable neighborhood.
These are uncomfortable truths, and they are more uncomfortable when they are—gently, in these cases—pointed out by the president of the United States. But what is the point of having a black president—or, someday, a female president or ethnic-minority president or gay president—if that person is expected to cleanse himself or herself of life experiences, even if those experiences make some of the rest of us uncomfortable?
Obama isn't just a black symbol for the rest of us to point to, showing the rest of the world, "Look! We have a black president!" We don't just talk the talk; we walk the walk. His background—not just his racial background but the international perspective he possesses from living abroad as a child—is part of who he is. It's part of what he brings to the White House. And he shouldn't be denounced for pointing it out to the country.