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Race, Obama and the shooting of a Black Teenager

By Opiyo Oloya

Added 30th March 2012 01:58 PM

When he finally commented on the tragic killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white neighbourhood vigilante in Sanford, Florida, US President Barack Obama, in just a few words, captured elegantly what it means to be black in America today.

When he finally commented on the tragic killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white neighbourhood vigilante in Sanford, Florida, US President Barack Obama, in just a few words, captured elegantly what it means to be black in America today.

When he finally commented on the tragic killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white neighbourhood vigilante in Sanford, Florida, US President Barack Obama, in just a few words, captured elegantly what it means to be black in America today.  

 
Personalizing the tragedy, he said, “If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon Martin.”  The president’s political detractors including former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich now running to be the Republican nominee for presidential candidate immediately accused Obama of attempting to divide America along racial lines, blacks against whites.  Said Gingrich, “Trying to turn it into a racial issue is fundamentally wrong. I really find it appalling."
 
But had Gingrich and his fellow American conservatives stopped for just a moment to truly analyze what Obama was saying, they would have understood that the president was speaking of what it means to be black in today’s America.  
 
The obvious starting point to understanding Obama’s attempt at personalizing the tragedy—If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin—is in the fact that America has over the past three years been led by its very first black president.  In symbolic and real terms, Obama’s election in November 2008, spoke of how far Blacks have come since the abolition of slavery in December 1865, through the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, to America today.  
 
To think that barely sixty years ago when American society was still heavily segregated, and the very idea of having a black president seemed as fantastic as raising a stable of flying unicorns, it is remarkable to see Mr. Obama standing tall as president in front of the White House.  
 
From being regarding as mere properties of plantation owners, Blacks have had to claw their ways, one day at a time, out of servitude to organising their own communities, finding opportunities in the new society, and starting the long march to political and economic freedom.
 
Through hard work, focus, and faith that freedom would eventually come, black communities transformed themselves to challenge the status quo using the very system that aimed to keep them in oppression.  More blacks went to colleges and universities since the end of World War ll, many taking on professional careers.  More blacks became successful entrepreneurs that competed around the world.
 
Moreover, ever so culturally inventive and creative, Blacks gave rise to the hip-hop culture that became ubiquitous with teens throughout the world today.  In the new urban landscape of R&B, rap music, baggy pants and hooded sweatshirts, there are seemingly no blacks or whites, just young people enjoying the same manner of dressing, speaking and the music of artists like Usher, 50 Cents, Drake, Eminem, Mac Miller or Chris Brown.
 
 In that realm, where many cultures collide and morph into each other, it is possible for a brief moment to imagine a world without colour and race. 
 
Yet, and this is the other part of what President Obama seemed to reflect on that morning without saying it out loud:  Blacks still get no respect in America today.  
 
This, of course, is a broad statement when you consider the context of Black history in America.  But discrimination of Blacks still runs deep in America today.  Based on percentage of population, there are many more Blacks, nearly 1 million men, in jail than any other race.  More young Blacks are likely to be stopped by police than any other race.  Being black, in other words, may have changed in some ways over the last two hundred years, but it has not changed fundamentally for the many young people who are unemployed, illiterate, poor, and continue to be victims of abuse of police power and privileges. 
 
For Obama, it would appear that in reflecting on the killing of Trayvon Martin, the biggest racial contradiction is not that a black president is in office now even as his brethrens continue to get shot at just for walking down to the convenience store to buy candy.  
 
No, it is not that at all.  It is that even as president, he cannot be seen to speak against the discrimination of blacks in America where he now holds the highest office.  He tried to do that once when his black friend Prof. Louis Gates Jr., a distinguished Harvard professor was roughed up in front of his own house by a white police officer Sgt. James Crowley who mistook Gates for a burglar.  
 
President Obama, only six months in office, was forced to apologize to the white officer after characterising the officer’s action as “stupid”.  He invited both Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley to what the media dubbed a “beer-summit” to make amends for his comments and make the issue go away.  
 
Surely, there must be many occasions when President Obama is sorely tempted to let loose some choice words to describe how he really feels about the treatment of Blacks in America today, but as soon as he opens his mouth, he says something totally innocuous, something like, “If I had a son, he’ look like Trayvon Martin.”  
 
But even for that limp acknowledgment of his roots and identity, Obama gets a verbal tongue lashing from a still very powerful white society where Blacks must know their place, and especially cannot be seen to be walking freely as if they own the world, to the convenience store to buy candy.  Such temerity can get one shot for real, and then one dies, just like Trayvon Martin did that night in February.
 
Opiyo.oloya@sympatico.ca
Twitter: @OpiyoOloya
 
 

When he finally commented on the tragic killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white neighbourhood vigilante in Sanford, Florida, US President Barack Obama, in just a few words, captured elegantly what it means to be black in America today.

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