Brent Staples: President Obama, Professor Gates and the Cambridge Police





The American obsession with people who are said to transcend race began long before Barack Obama moved into the White House — long before he even thought about running for president. Affluent, well-educated black people were being appropriated as symbols of racial progress — and held up as proof that racism no longer mattered — back when Mr. Obama was still a youth in short pants

White Americans have little experience with this brand of appropriation. In general, their personal and professional triumphs are viewed as the product of individual fortitude and evidence that the founding ideals of the nation are alive and well.

Successful African-Americans — whether they are sports stars, entertainers or politicians — are often accorded a more tortured significance. In addition to being held up as proof that racism has been extinguished, they are often employed as weapons in the age-old campaign to discredit, and even demean, the disadvantaged.

“Don’t talk to us about discrimination,” the argument typically goes. “You made it. If the others got off their behinds and tried, they would, too.” In this rhetoric of race, there is no such thing as social disadvantage, only hard-working, morally upright people who succeed, and lazy, morally defective people who do not.

Black Americans who find this line of argument appealing, along with the celebrity it brings them, typically end up trumpeting exceptionalism, playing down the significance of discrimination, and lecturing black people (nearly always in front of white audiences) to stop whining about racism and get on with it.

Mr. Obama has refused to play this role, even though people have tried to thrust it upon him. He has made clear all along that the election of the first African-American president, while noteworthy in a nation built on the backs of slaves, did not signal a sudden, magical end to discrimination.

He underscored this point again this week when he commented on the arrest in Cambridge, Mass., of the Harvard African-American scholar (and my longtime friend) Henry Louis Gates Jr. and about the tendency of police officers to target blacks and Hispanics for traffic stops....

During the campaign, Mr. Obama tended to avoid direct engagement with racial issues until circumstances (a tempest over his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright) made further evasion impossible.

He reached a similar moment when he was asked to comment on Mr. Gates’s arrest at a White House news conference on Wednesday.

In a remark that became instantly famous, he responded that the police acted “stupidly” in arresting Mr. Gates when no crime had been committed and the professor was standing in his own home. Mr. Obama further noted that disproportionate attention from the police was an unwelcome fact of black life in America.

People who have heretofore viewed Mr. Obama as a “postracial” abstraction were no doubt surprised by these remarks. This could be because they were hearing him fully for the first time.

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