Opinion: The 'Disgraceful' Blackness of Barack Obama

Jeff Yang's photo illustration comparing what President Obama's 'son' might look like next to a photo of Trayvon Martin.

Breaking news, everyone: We have a black president.

Now, most of you reading this will probably see this statement as ridiculously, blindingly obvious. After all, Barack Obama regularly refers to himself as a black man, ticked the box marked "black" on his personal census form, and even wrote an eloquent, best-selling book, Dreams from My Father, exploring the roots of his black identity.

But obviousness has never prevented the more cynical denizens of our busted political ecosystem from detonating with mock outrage in the past. So it probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Prominent Republicans, including leading presidential also-rans Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich and GOP party chairman Rush Limbaugh, recently took to the airwaves to excoriate the president over his remarks on the tragic killing of Florida teen Trayvon Martin.

Speaking off the cuff at the announcement of Jim Yong Kim as his nominee to the position of World Bank chief, Obama offered up a fairly innocuous quote: "When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids….If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon."

And yet, the last ten words of his statement managed to provoke a furor.

On Sean Hannity’s radio show, newt Gingrich did his best Angry Bird impression, flinging himself bodily at the president with intent to explode. “What the president said in a sense is disgraceful.  It’s not a question of who that young man looked like….We should all be horrified, no matter what the ethnic background. Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot that would be okay because it didn’t look like him?”

Lingering aftertaste Rick Santorum subsequently piled on, accusing Obama of using “these types of horrible tragic individual cases to try to drive a wedge in America,” and calling Obama’s attempt to “try to divide people…a sad, tragic legacy of this president.” (Apparently, the binary assignment of people into the categories of “primordialist Christian” and “people doomed to burn in hell” doesn’t count as divisive.)

But it was GOP heavyweight-in-more-ways-than-one Rush Limbaugh who dropped the biggest pantload on the president, dedicating an entire show to Obama’s impromptu remark. “It’s very, very unfortunate that [Obama] seizes upon this horrific thing where families are suffering and injects that type of divisive rhetoric,” he says. “The left…doesn’t see the humanity in people, they see the surface. It’s the left who sees black and white; male and female; gay and straight….They don’t ever just see people….How sad — how wrong — to live in a black-and-white world.”

Now, it should be pointed out that the president never actually mentioned Trayvon Martin's race, or his own, for that matter. And yet it’s true  — ridiculously, almost blindingly true  — that his statement implicitly acknowledged that Trayvon Martin was a young black man, and he, the president of the United States, is a somewhat older black man.

Here’s a question: What’s so outrageous about that?

The president was black before Trayvon Martin’s senseless death, and he’ll be black after Martin’s killer is brought to trial. He was black when he ran for the White House and won in 2008, becoming our first black Commander-in-Chief, and he’ll be black when the polls close this November, potentially making him the first black man to be reelected to the nation’s highest executive office.

Ipso facto, Q.E.D.: If Obama had had a son, that son would be a young black man, quite possibly with a passing resemblance to Martin, another young black man. And not just because of the color of his skin, mind you: There’s something vaguely Young-Barack-y in Martin’s long jawline, his slightly jutting ears, his infectious grin. Even if the broad physical likeness is slim, those very subtle similarities stand out.

And for a parent, such similarities are a powerful emotional trigger that shouldn’t be, can’t be, dismissed.

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As Obama pointed out in his full statement, every parent in America should empathize with Martin's parents. But moms and dads like Obama who look into Martin's face and see a faint reflection of their own, well, they can hardly be excused for feeling an extra frisson of horror. After all, when news breaks of young white girls beset by tragedy — Natalee Holloway, Jaycee Dugard, Caylee Anthony — who criticizes the sobbing parents of young white girls who call in to Nancy Grace to say "That could've been my daughter; she looks just like Vallaree did when she was her age"?  

Certainly not Rush Limbaugh, or Rick Santorum, or Newt Gingrich.

It’s clear from both context and content that Obama’s statement wasn’t some kind of call to arms on race: It was a heartfelt and impulsive reaction of empathy, from a father looking at a boy who could have been his son. And yes, both happen to be black. But it was Limbaugh, Santorum and Gingrich who noted that fact…not the president.

Which underscores the hideous, embarrassingly blunt hypocrisy of the Republicans who have used this incident as a rationale to leap on the Obama-as-Divider bandwagon. The president is one of the few individuals who’ve responded to this crisis without invoking race, urging people to come together, inviting sympathy and soul-searching rather than condemnation and rage. “I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this. And that everybody pull together,” he said in his complete quote.

Meanwhile, it’s the Republicans who’ve done their best to inject a racial interpretation into the president’s words, while simultaneously declaring the Right to be free of the nasty burden of race-based thinking.

“It’s the left that sees black and white,” said Limbaugh. But he’s the one who, a year after Obama’s election, unapologetically played a song titled “Barack the Magic Negro” on his radio show, and who’s spoken approvingly of South Africa’s “white government” versus Nelson Mandela’s “communist bankrolled” one, and who told a black female caller to “take that bone out of your nose and call me back.”

And it’s Gingrich who derisively referred to Obama as the “food stamp president,” while pointedly and repeatedly calling out welfare-roll blacks on the campaign trail. And it’s Santorum who in Iowa — a state that’s 92 percent white — told his Republican stump audience, "I don't want to make black people's lives better by giving them other people's money."

All of these, however, pale (pun intended) before the candor of John Derbyshire, a flagship contributor to conservative house organ National Review, who last Thursday penned a screed for another widely read conservative publication titled “The Talk: Non-Black Version.”

His essay recommended that white people tell their children to “avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally” and “leave as quickly as possible” if at a public event “at which the number of blacks suddenly swells”; “not settle in a district or municipality run by black politicians”; and to “not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway.”

It also asserted that among their traits, blacks are more prone to “school disciplinary measures, political corruption, and criminal convictions,” possibly because “the mean intelligence of blacks is much lower than for whites….Only one black in six is more intelligent than the average white; five whites out of six are more intelligent than the average black.”

After initial hemming and hawing on the part of the National Review’s editor, Rich Lowry, yesterday, Derbyshire was fired. But Limbaugh, Gingrich and Santorum, the quickest to attack the president for his alleged divisiveness, have remained stunningly silent.

Because while the thoughtful empathy of an inconveniently black president that Limbaugh has referred to as “uppity” requires instant, blaring condemnation, the ridiculous, blinding racism of an inconveniently white fellow conservative is best ignored and shuffled under the rug until forgotten. To call it out, after all, might be divisive.