The “History That Doesn’t Go Away”

It’s hard for me to tell you how remarkable it was to hear President Obama talk, extemporaneously and personally, about the events surrounding the shooting of Trayvon Martin. I found his words the most poignant of his presidency, as he attempted to put into context the African-American response to the killing of the sixteen-year-and-a-month-old kid in Florida.

But not everyone, of course, found his commentary pleasing or helpful. The reactionaries among us were quite upset and had a lot to say about it.

And I don’t just mean what outrageous and extremist conservatives like Sean Hannity and other IQ-sapping schmucks had to say about it (hint: Obama’s admission that Trayvon Martin could have been him 35 years ago was an admission that “he smoked pot and he did a little blow”).

And I don’t just mean the ridiculous commentary Mike Huckabee offered as he substituted for the racially-challenged Bill O’Reilly on Friday (hint: contrary to Obama, no race issue was involved, only pornography, graphic media violence, and abortion!).

And I don’t just mean the insane opinion of Huckabee’s guest, “Republican strategist” Brad Blakeman, who said that if protests this past weekend turned ugly, Obama “incited any violence that takes place.”

No, I’m not just talking about those conservatives, the usual suspects, whose reactionary responses are fire-retardant chemicals, putting out the firing synapses of anyone with a brain.

I’m talking about what Charles Krauthammer, who gets much credit for being an enlightened conservative commentator on Fox “News” Channel, had to say about Obama’s remarks:

…a political speech addressed to his constituency on the left, which I thought was unfortunate . . . Look, I gave him and Holder credit all week for trying to de-racialize the issue. And what Obama did, I think, unfortunately, today is to reracialize it.

That the very white Dr. Krauthammer would take from the President’s remarks not much more than that they constituted “a political speech” designed to appease folks who understand in their bones the racial context of the tragedy—which means, let’s not kid ourselves, that Krauthammer was talking about Obama appeasing blacks—is instructive as to the mental state of the Fox blabber.

But it is more instructive as to the philosophical corruption of much of contemporary conservatism, whose decadence extends beyond failed economic theories or the compulsion to get inside the heads and vaginas of American women in order to save zygotes.

This corruption is related to the corruption that has plagued this country from before its official founding, when black folks in chains were introduced to America as the property of white folks. But this modern corruption is not the kind one would find at, say, an old slave auction where the young black men were referred to as “bucks.” No, no, no. The modern conservative, like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, is much more subtle than that. He or she would never dehumanize Barack Obama in that way.

The more subtle form of denying the basic humanity of black men is reflected not only in Sean Hannity’s stupid remarks, but in the comments of the ostensibly more refined Charles Krauthammer: Obama, a black man who happens to be president, had no real business “racializing” the issue of a black teenager getting profiled and killed because the killer suspected he was up to no good and followed him. You see, President Obama, not for a moment, not for the tiniest increment of time, is suppose to act like a normal human being in front of all the white folks who don’t like him anyway, who have from the beginning profiled him as some kind of angry and Scary Negro, without the hoodie.

Because conservatives have long ago dismissed any claims that America still has significant problems left over from its racist past, they’d rather everyone just shut up about it. They don’t want to hear it. And they especially don’t want to hear it from an uppity black who, God only knows how and why, was reelected as president.

Among other things, President Obama offended many conservatives with 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.

Pain. “There’s a lot of pain around what happened here,” said the President. Speaking to that pain, speaking for the first time in his presidency as one who knows first-hand that pain, speaking for the first time out of the depth of his experiences as a black man in America, Mr. Obama has disturbed many extremists on the right—99.9% white—who don’t want to hear him speak about that “history that doesn’t go away” or the “pain” associated with it. These white conservatives want to hear only about their pain, the pain of watching their America turn brown before their very eyes.

What white conservatives also want to hear is a lot of talk about black criminality, as if black criminality is not, in any conceivable way, related to centuries of slavery followed by Jim Crow laws and other such instruments of oppression. All over Fox and the Internet you can find palefaced conservatives saying that the President ought to quit worrying about George Zimmerman killing Trayvon Martin and start worrying about all the “black on black” killings plaguing African-American communities.

Oh, yeah? What about all those “white on white” killings? Here’s a graph I found on MSNBC this weekend:

race statistics

As many have pointed out, people commit crimes where they live. Whites, like around here in Petticoat Joplin, tend to commit crimes against other whites. If I were to do a little criminal profiling in my neighborhood, the suspects would look a lot like Sean Hannity or Charles Krauthammer or Ann Coulter. So, conservatives chanting “black on black” crime, and pretending that they give a damn about it, is irrelevant to what happened to Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.

The President also talked about how the history that doesn’t go away is “unacknowledged” and how that “adds to the frustration.” He then said,

And the fact that a lot of African American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African American boys are more violent — using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.

That’s the point in all this. Sure, as President Obama said, “African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system,” and “they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence.” But it won’t do to treat all black “sons” as if they are criminals, or criminals in waiting. We can’t exist as a peaceful, prosperous society if we do so. We can’t label all black teenagers or young men as “suspects”—and that’s what profiling does—and then expect African-Americans to believe they are full citizens with all the opportunities this wealthy country affords. That won’t work. We can’t ignore, as the President said, “the fact that a lot of African American boys are painted with a broad brush.” 

I want to tell you a short story related to that broad brush.

I know a father whose son recently graduated from Joplin High School. A few years ago, this white boy had his iPod stolen at school, even though the father expressly told him not to bring it there. I won’t go into the details, but the boy knew with near-certainty that the thief was a fellow student, a black kid who had been in trouble many times at school.

Now, the iPod was worth only $300, but that was no small amount of money for this family. And the boy was very upset about losing such a valuable item and began wondering, out loud, why black kids were such thieves, why they went searching for other people’s stuff.

This is how black teenagers, those who would never think of stealing an iPod, start to get painted with that broad brush the President was describing. It may start with a white boy being victimized in some way by an African-American and ends with suspecting that every black kid he meets is about to do something bad to him or to others.

The white boy’s father had a long, long talk with his son. He talked about the likely difficulties that the black kid had at home, the differences in background compared to the mostly white kids he went to school with. His father told him that despite the pain he felt, despite the feeling of victimization, it simply wouldn’t do to think of black kids first as thieves, then as human beings. To that end, despite the fact that the boy was warned that he should not bring the iPod to school in the first place, the father bought his son a brand new one. He bought it, he said, to take the sting out of the loss, so as to help his son remember not to make suspects out of every black kid he meets, even though it might seem rational to do so.

Related to that, President Obama will have the last word:

And let me just leave you with a final thought that, as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better.  Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race.  It doesn’t mean we’re in a post-racial society.  It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated.  But when I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I seem them interact, they’re better than we are — they’re better than we were — on these issues.  And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.

And so we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues.  And those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature, as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions.  But we should also have confidence that kids these days, I think, have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did; and that along this long, difficult journey, we’re becoming a more perfect union — not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.

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8 Comments

  1. A fine post, Duane, true, insightful, and I’m sure, cathartic. As I read it and the pieces of Obama’s soliloquy that you quoted, it occurred to me that he may be the most articulate president I have heard in my lifetime. He spoke without a script, without a teleprompter, without even notes, never mind that even he could not have made those comments without a lot of thought and conversations having preceded them. This is evidence that we were hearing not an amalgam of committee consensus, which is what most presidential statements have been historically, but the genuine feelings of a man who is comfortable in the profundities he expressed. It is sad then that political and racial bias impel otherwise intelligent people like Krauthammer to criticism of what ought to be welcome as unifying. I think history will judge Obama as one of the great ones, but for now, all is polemics.

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    • Your analysis of the President’s remarks is exactly right, Jim. I particularly liked your phrase, “a man who is comfortable in the profundities he expressed.” I felt that same way about his remarks, although I couldn’t have expressed it so well.

      And, no surprise, I too think history will be very kind to Mr. Obama, even if his contemporary detractors are not. In a hundred years, no one will know or care who Sean Hannity was, but Barack Obama will be very much alive for those who care about our nation’s history.

      Duane

       

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  2. Michael D. Gaden, BSNE, MBA

     /  July 22, 2013

    A really good post. I hope some will read it and understand what it is like to be discriminated against, to be thought of as being a particular way, thinking a particular way just because of a physical characteristic you have no control over.

    I agree with Jim Wheeler’s comment that history will judge Obama as one of the great ones. I believe that a great deal of rancor and invective was unleashed against FDR (if the rancor and invective my grandfather – 1890 to 1992 – used was any example) and he is, I think, regarded today as a great president who accomplished great things.

    Obama is the right person at the right time to help us see how profound our racism is, how hard it is to even understand that it exists. In some ways we are like the fish, who said when asked “How’s the water?” responded “Water? What water?”

    “Racism? What racism?”

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    • Excellent, Michael. It is always important to remember that great presidents were lightning rods for extremist criticism while they were doing, and saying, great things. FDR is the perfect example.

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  3. Troy

     /  July 22, 2013

    Having elected a President of color, I thought America had finally arrived. That she had shed her prejudices and was moving forward to include all people’s of this great country in it’s prosperity and political say. America really had the opportunity to do something great with this newly elected President . A chance to show other minorities that they matterd, that there was hope for them too. To really be a part of the American dream. But unfortunately, the white establishment has other ideas. At every turn they go out of their way to belittle our President, to paint him as a thug, a tyrant, pot smoker, gang member, on and on. Instead, the “good old boys” could have worked with this man to make America an all inclusive nation . To lift every person of this country up. Shamefully this won’t be the case until all these old boys die off. Keep hope alive!

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    • I think a lot of us felt the same way you did. It’s strange, but having elected a black president, accompanied by the treatment he has received from right wingers, in some ways demonstrated to a lot of black folks that no matter what, no matter if a man of color achieves the highest office in the land, the most powerful position in the world, that there are a lot of white folks who will never, I mean, never, respect either him or them.

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  4. Remarkable is a good word to describe the President’s remarks. The inevitable backlash from conservative media — from Huckabee preaching a stale Moral Majority sermon to Hannity’s sordid offerings from the bottom of the race-baiting barrel – are indications Obama struck a nerve. Speaking openly about realities faced on a daily basis by the African-American community is too tangible for Fox “News” personalities to digest, especially when the black man is speaking from the White House.

    Honest conversation about race relations in America is not Fox “News” or right-wing talk radio’s forte.

    As for Hannity, I found this old Onion piece satirizing George W. Bush. The Onion publishes parodies; Hannity works for a self-described news organization. It is hard to tell the difference.

    http://www.theonion.com/articles/george-w-bush-having-trouble-finding-decent-cocain,32608/

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    • Ha! Just once, just one single time, I would like to hear W utter the words, “junk cut with Benzo.”

      And I’m glad you mentioned that Huckabee’s commentary was “a stale Moral Majority sermon.” You are exactly right. I hadn’t heard such tripe since Jerry Falwell passed on and possibly discovered that heaven was a lot warmer, and a tad more uncomfortable, than he expected.

      Duane

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