The Atlantic, July 19, 2013
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
My earlier criticisms notwithstanding, I think these comments (brought to you by my label-mate Garance Franke-Ruta) by Barack Obama, given his role as president of the United States of America, strike precisely the right note.
I could nitpick about a few things, but I think it’s more important that people take this in. As far as I know, these are Barack Obama’s most extensive comments regarding the impact of racism since he became president.
I would like to highlight this:
“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.
“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.”
“And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.
“The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.”
I think this this is a very good primer on how it feels to be black and consider your relationship to law enforcement. Or people who think they are law enforcement.
I have had my criticisms of this president and how he talks about race. But given the mass freak-out that met him last year after making a modest point about Trayvon Martin, it must be said that it took political courage for him to double down on the point and then advance it.
No president has ever done this before. It does not matter that the competition is limited. The impact of the highest official in the country directly feeling your pain, because it is his pain, is real. And it is happening now. And it is significant.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.