Obama made his first big splash on the national stage at the 2004 DNC. He gave a speech that invoked his white mother and black Kenyan father. He was young, articulate, smart. He sounded like we wanted our representatives to sound like, especially when we had the moronic bumblings of George W. as our face on the world stage.
But I wasn’t paying much attention then. I didn’t think he stood a chance.
It was only after Spitzer’s fall from grace (or whatever her name was, to steal a one-liner from Colbert) that I tuned in to Barack Obama and started taking note. It was in March of 2008 and my political hero disappointed me, to say the least. Spitzer had been to me the guy to cut through all of the bullshit, to call Wall Street for what it was. I remember thinking, This guy must be squeaky clean. If he has made any missteps in his life, surely they would have gone after it. Spoiler alert: He did. And they did.
The democratic presidential race was still a muddle of candidates then, each tearing the other down, the media fanning the fires of divisiveness. Hillary Clinton was the front-runner. John Edwards was in there. Joe Biden. Kucinich. They were all making the late night talk show rounds, appearing on the Daily Show. I wasn’t too invested at that time. There were debates to come, scandals to be exposed, alliances re-aligned. It seemed pointless really.
Barack Obama was gaining traction and supposed dirty deeds and telling associations were coming out of the woodwork, most infamous among them, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. When Obama stood up and addressed that in March 2008, and made the effort to talk about race the way I’d never seen anyone do before, not anyone with so much to lose just by acknowledging this issue, I effectively replaced Spitzer with a new political hero. His words sought to make one culture and class of Americans understand the other, much like his did on Friday.
But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it – those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations – those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.
On television, they call it breaking down the fourth wall, the imaginary line that separates the character onscreen from its audience. They sit around a kitchen table, positioned around it to face a camera, but it’s a rule to ignore it, to pretend the audience isn’t there.
A similar rule has come into existence since the inception of Obama’s administration: he is not to address race. To do so would be to give credence to every racist’s nightmare: admit that we elected a black guy, who sees things from a black perspective, and might dare to speak to that or legislate as such, undermining centuries of white aristocracy.
Obama has joked about it. When he made his entrance to the White House Correspondents Dinner, he swapped out “Hail to the Chief” for rap music. “Rush Limbaugh warned you about this,” he said. “Second term, baby.”
Yet by breaking down that wall we can all exhale and have an actual conversation that isn’t insulated by the pretense we were all participating in. In his impromptu speech regarding Trayvon Martin on Friday, the president had a real, off the cuff moment. It was heartfelt. There was no teleprompter. He spoke to the indisputable disparity between how laws are written and enforced along racial lines. He spoke about the violent history that informs the experience black Americans face. And he spoke about his personal experience.
It has the country up in arms because it was something we rarely see from someone in such high office. In fact, it’s something we haven’t seen Obama himself address since 2008. We see watered-down and contrived rhetoric, designed to offend the least amount of people possible. An impossible task, but a goal so many deem worthy. Yet, in its in-offense, so many words fail to stick. This is why Joe Biden resonates. He might be gaffe-prone, but only because he speaks in real sentences, unlike political robots of the Rubio variety.
By acknowledging that there’s a documented disparity to how our laws are enforced along racial lines, he’s now being accused of anything from fanning the flames of racism and exacerbating an already heated moment to being a blatant racist himself. I’m no Obama apologist. I’ve been equally vocal about how his policies as President have either expanded upon George Bush’s disastrous ones that preceded him or have shown a rampant dismissal of civil liberties. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that there are no political heroes.
Yet, by speaking forthright about his own experience as a black American, again he raised the level of discourse in the country to one above talking points and pretended offense. He opened himself up to the ridiculous misinterpretations that are plaguing the Internet, those who will take his words out of context, to reshape them into something unworthy of a President. But it wasn’t.
Because here’s the deal: the stains of the race issue touch each of us. If we’re not working to fix it, if we’re complacent, we add to it. We fix it by talking about it in real terms. By looking at it without unequal comparisons. By acknowledging our roles. We tackle this in real, unscripted moments.
This is where heroism could be found.