No one is. Being black is an individual experience shaped by the events of an individual’s life. There is no universal “black experience”. There are blacks who for one reason or another have emerged from the “adventure” of being black in America relatively unscathed. There are others for whom life has been a living hell and the extent to which their race contributed to that hell is imprecise at best.
Many blacks, myself included, have encountered well meaning whites who think that just by virtue of our being black that we are an authority on all things African-American. “Rutherford, that Puff Daddy sure is talented isn’t he?” Well, actually, I don’t listen to Puff Daddy (or P Diddy or whatever he’s calling himself right now). “Rutherford, which do you like better, the writings of Toni Morrison or James Baldwin?” Eh, I haven’t read either of them.
I’m beginning to think our first black president is falling into this trap and is no longer acquitting himself admirably. After contributing to an over 200 comment thread on this very blog and after watching a week’s worth of coverage I am having somewhat of an epiphany concerning Barack Obama and race. Let me explain.
Had police Sgt. Crowley arrested Professor Henry Louis Gates last year while George W. Bush was President, W would never have been asked his opinion on the matter. This is a hypothetical upon which I’m 99% positive (I’ll grant my opponents a 1% margin of error). So what possessed Chicago writer Lynn Sweet to ask Barack Obama about this local police matter at the conclusion of a press conference that had NOTHING to do with local politics or local police behavior? It is simple. The Crowley-Gates throw-down was swimming in racial controversy and it goes without saying that our black president MUST have an opinion on it. Obama, who has mistakenly taken on the roll of social science teacher-in-chief took the bait. Not only did he use the moment to remind us about racial profiling (which incidentally did not happen in this case), he shared his opinion of the arrest as though he was our enlightened educating black best buddy.
Obama, at least this past week, seems to have forgotten what made him such an appealing presidential candidate. With the exception of the “Race Speech” which had to be made to explain away Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama ran a basically race-neutral campaign. While it was clear that if he won, he would be our first black president, he did not run as the black candidate. He ran to be president, not the black president. Obama got himself in hot water this week because he allowed himself to be cornered into being the black-expert-in-chief. The proper answer to Lynn Sweet should have been, “Lynn, with all I have on my plate right now do you really think I’m going to weigh in on a Cambridge, Massachusetts arrest? For what it’s worth, Skip Gates is a friend of mine and I wish him well. Next question.”
I think the time has come for Barack Obama to become ice cold when it comes to race in America. Being black does not make you an expert on being black. Obama is a smart man who likes to show his expertise on a number of subjects but race need not be one of them. If Obama wants to “teach” us about being black, let him do it simply by example. To my knowledge, Obama has never screamed at a police officer to the point that the officer was sufficiently offended to arrest his ass. That alone should be evidence of what Obama really thinks of Gates’ behavior in this incident.
So to Obama I say, stop teaching us and continue leading us. To the press I say, Barack Obama knows no more about being a black man in this country than any other black guy. Stop asking him race related questions thinking he somehow owes you an answer. He’s not your social science experiment. He’s the leader of the free world. Treat him that way.