Finally, President Obama has spoken as a black man.
It wasn’t entirely on his own initiative, but a question he was asked about Trayvon Martin left him no choice. When he finally spoke, he began haltingly, as if his words were taking him out on a high wire with no net below. This was risky.
He said the safe things first: that the death of 17-year-old Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman in a Florida suburb was a tragedy. He said he sympathized with the parents, and that various law enforcement agencies should diligently investigate the matter. Then he took the plunge: “If I had a son,” Obama said, “he’d look like Trayvon.”
In other words, there but for the grace of God goes my son, another young black man likely to be put in harm’s way simply because of his skin color. In front of the cameras and microphones, Obama acknowledged not only that he is black but that even the president isn’t immune to stereotypes that can sometimes turn deadly. And it’s true. If Obama himself had been walking through a gated Florida community dressed in a hoodie with his face hidden, it’s not hard to imagine an overzealous neighborhood watch captain reporting his presence to the cops and trailing him as a suspicious-looking black guy.
Identifying as black is risky for Obama always, but identifying with working-class blacks — the kind the country sees as criminal, or at the very least potentially criminal — is risky on a whole other scale. That breaks the fantasy (if there’s any fantasy left) of Obama as the magic black “other,” a man who has little in common with young black men in hoodies with names like Trayvon. For Obama to embrace Trayvon Martin — linking him with his own children and calling him “this boy” with fatherly concern — gives the racially anxious one more reason for concern about the president.
The last time Obama commented publicly on a case of possible racial profiling was after Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.was arrested trying to force open the jammed door of his Cambridge home in 2009. After criticizing the arrest as “stupid,” the president got an avalanche of criticism and wound up sitting down for a beer in the White House garden with Gates and the white cop who arrested him. That meeting sent the wrong message, implying that racial profiling is an individual problem rather than a systemic one.
This time, Obama was speaking clearly to the systemic. But his almost physical struggle to strike the right tone was evidence of the kind of “double consciousness” that W.E.B. DuBois identified more than a century ago as the peculiar burden black folks bear in trying to be both black and American at the same time. Watching Obama trying to resolve that age-old conflict was truly historic and unexpectedly poignant.
The first time I heard Obama speak on this issue was in 2007, when he came to Los Angeles’ Crenshaw district to hold a campaign rally. I had watched his celebrated Philadelphia speech at the Democratic convention, the speech that put him on the map of national politics. It was brilliantly delivered but too soft-focus for my taste. But one of the things he said that day in Crenshaw was that voters were rightly fed up with the fact that too many people were in prison. He was partly telling the blacks in the crowd what they wanted to hear, but he was also giving voice to a long-standing racial grievance rarely expressed by any elected officials, much less presidential candidates.
Obama didn’t quite go all the way — he didn’t say “too many people of color are in prison” — but the implication was clear. He went further in his Trayvon Martin remarks by implying that a son of his who looked like Trayvon could have met the same end. He never used the word “black.” But his grave tone and choice of words had the ring of morality, stressing the idea of justice being done, advising us all to do some soul-searching. Most striking was how rattled the president appeared to be; for the master of cool, this truly seemed personal. It was a rare moment in which the normally abstract issues of black American injustice had a face, one of the most famous in the world.
But it was only a moment. Obama will now retreat from the fray and sincerely hope that he won’t be pressed to say anything else about Trayvon Martin, not in a reelection year. But the damage — or the liberation — has happened: the truth about Obama the black man has been revealed.
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing writer to The Times’ Opinion pages and the author of “Black Talk, Blue Thoughts, and Walking the Color Line.”