Here is an excerpt of President Obama speaking extemporaneously last night about the arrest of Henry Louis "Skip" Gates in his own home -
"There was a report called into the police station that there might be a burglary taking place. so far so good. Right? I mean, if I was trying to jigger in -- well, I guess this is my house now so it probably wouldn't happen. Let's say my old house in Chicago. Here I'd get shot."
The transcript doesn't do the delivery justice. It was a jaw dropping moment at the end of a press conference in which the President responded at great length to questions about his Health Care reform effort. Obama is a skilled communicator but he does not give terse, scripted replies typical of politicians, and this violates a fundamental tenet of media communications: the more you say, the more opportunity your words have to come back to get you. No doubt his handlers cringed, and indeed his subsequent remarks that the Cambridge police acted stupidly have been picked up and flogged in the electronic media. It is also part of what makes him such an engaging speaker and, for many, a sympathetic figure.
But for me, the most astonishing part of his remarks is contained in the above excerpt. Whenever the President talks about race, he is very careful to make it a broader matter than the stark dichotomy of black and white. He appears at pains to ensure that this most uncomfortable aspect of American life and society is approached as part of our national experience rather than the special interests of one group or another.
"...what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. And that's just a fact..."
He does this both to be disarming and to traverse a path strewn with ancient minefields, and this was the one part of his remarks where he turned to humor to find a way forward. In fact, it was the only humorous moment in the entire evening, and yet it was humor with an edge. When he said that "this is my house now so it probably wouldn't happen", everyone in the room laughed at the recognition that they were, in fact, in the White House and Mr. Obama lives a life unlike any other citizen, let alone any other African American. The idea of him somehow breaking into the White House because he forgot his keys was absurdly funny, and had the effect of making the most powerful man on Earth seem more like the rest of us. When the President's remarks become self-referential, it reveals something of the man behind the office.
And in the very next breathe he upped the ante.
"Let's say my old house in Chicago. Here I'd get shot."
People didn't know whether they should gasp or laugh and so they squirmed and did both. The idea of the secret service shooting the first African American president for breaking into the White House takes racial profiling to a chilling level of absurdity. As with all quick witted humor it may also be unintentionally revealing. The threat of presidential assassination is something all of our chief executives live with every day but with this president it is also the fear that cannot be named: that the better angels of our nature that elected the first African American to our highest national office will be cast down by our darkest demons.
The White House is not the only place where a black man with every right to be where he is could be shot as a result of racial profiling. Obama probably wasn't thinking about Amadou Diallo when he made that quip, but it occurred to Lawrence Bobo when writing in The Root about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates that:
"I think (he) could have been physically injured by this police officer (if not worse) had he, in fact, stepped out of his home before showing his ID. Black Americans recall all too well that Amadou Diallo reached for his identification in a public space when confronted by police and, 42 gun shots later, became the textbook case of deadly race-infected police bias."
The rest of his response to the Gates controversy acknowledged that "...race remains a factor in this society. That doesn't lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as testimony to the progress that's been made. And yet, the fact of the matter is that, you know, this still haunts us." Even if it hurts too much to laugh at the joke, it is refreshing to hear these words said from that podium.