President Obama finally got his wish: He went Bulworth. Sure, it was on a Friday, in the late afternoon, in the middle of July, and almost a full seven days after the Trayvon Martin verdict. But it finally happened in a surprise speech on race.
You can kind of imagine the arguments in the West Wing this week as Obama pushed to join the conversation about the most controversial news story in months, and his aides resisting until this this quiet but important speech on race emerged as the compromise. But it was the kind of speech that Obama has seemingly longed to deliver for much of the past four years. Back in May, when the conventional wisdom was that a triad of scandals were about to overwhelm his second term (they didn't), The New York Times reported that Obama "has talked longingly of 'going Bulworth,' a reference to a little-remembered 1998 Warren Beatty movie about a senator who risked it all to say what he really thought." That is a very mild description of what the Bulworth character did: he smoked weed, danced in clubs, said politicians didn't care about black neighborhoods because black people don't donate to political campaigns, said he couldn't give them health care because insurance companies donate so much.
It's important to note that Obama's fantasy president is very different than the Aaron Sorkin-style fantasy president. Aaron Sorkin presidents are able to appeal to people's better natures to extract compromise among white people who can't otherwise get along. The Bulworth president gives speeches matter-of-factly exposing the cynical way American politicians of both parties view black people. This distinction is important.
Obama did not go Aaron Sorkin on Friday. This was not a speech meant to finally break the gridlock on Capitol Hill. (He actually said, "we’re not rolling out some five-point plan.") Instead, Obama talked about some of the realities black men face in America. He did not suggest there was much that could be done about it, only that things were getting better. Obama even dismissed the idea that he should "convene a conversation on race" in the wake of the verdict in the George Zimmerman case, saying, "I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations."
But Obama himself is unusually attuned to the conversation the rest of us are having. He reads blogs. He's joked about getting bumped off the cover of Us Weekly in favor of Jessica Simpson's "weight battle." He has explained Nicki Minaj's rap persona, expounded on Kanye West the artist vs. Kanye West the personality. And while on Friday Obama said some of the things you'd expect a politician to say about a controversial issue that involves tragedy — that he's sending "thoughts and prayers" and all of that — Obama also engaged with some of the major ideas people have been talking about on the Internet all week, ever since George Zimmerman was found not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter for killing Martin.
Obama has dipped his toe in going Bulworth a few times. He said he couldn't use a Jedi mind meld on Republicans to make them agree to stop the sequester. He said he couldn't lock Republican leaders in a room. But it's fitting that the time Obama finally really went Bulworth — to the maximal degree a president can actually do that — it was on the subject of race.
"The fact that a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African-American boys are more violent -- using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain," Obama said on Friday. As The Nation's George Zornick tweeted, "Obama explicitly called out Richard Cohen's poisonous argument." Though Obama did not name him, The Washington Post's Richard Cohen was the most widely bashed columnist of the many who suggested after the Zimmerman acquittal that racial profiling is OK.
Earlier this week, Cohen said he was tired of hearing that "for recognizing the reality of urban crime in the United States, I am a racist." He said blacks were 78 percent of all shooting suspects in New York City, and if police "ignore race, then they are fools and ought to go into another line of work." Many, many people said these comments were racist, and stuck in the 1980s. The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that Cohen suggests that none of Coates' family "deserve to be judged as individuals by the state. Instead we must be seen as members of a class more inclined to criminality."
And Obama said, "I think the African-American community is also not naive in understanding that statistically somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else." This, too, is something people have been talking about all week. Was Zimmerman right to be so scared of a black teenager? Should Cohen be scared of black kids? As Andrew Sullivan pointed out, "The percentage odds of Richard Cohen being killed by a young black man is 0.00015 percent. And yet he’s scared. I guess it’s clarifying to have this fact of human nature expressed in a column. But it doesn’t make it any less repugnant." Blacks are more likely to kill blacks, and whites are more likely to kill whites, because crime is "driven by opportunism and proximity," The Daily Beast's Jamelle Bouie wrote. "[T]he idea of 'black-on-black crime' taps into specific fears around black masculinity and black criminality." It's not that Obama necessarily read these specific articles by these specific writers. It's that he's aware and responding to exactly what people are talking about.
Obama spoke personally about another major discussion since the Martin case got national attention: What it feels like to have everyone think you're a criminal just because of your skin color. Since Martin was killed in February 2012, here have been tons of essays by black men who've described what it's like to have to be conscious of not scaring white people in public.
Obama said, "You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago." Notably, Cohen demanded Obama admit that he, too, was scared of black males when he lived in New York in college. Obama did the opposite. He continued:
There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.
And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
Obama mentioned his white grandmother being afraid of black men on the sidewalk in his last speech about race, in 2008. That speech included much more on whites' racial fears — that affirmative action is unfair, or that their kids have to be bused to school across town. But this speech was focused on what African-Americans were feeling — that context and history were being ignored in the Zimmerman trial, the biases on display in the proceedings. As Jelani Cobb pointed out at The New Yorker, the prosecution based their case for second-degree murder on the idea that Martin was losing the fight, and Zimmerman killed him anyway. So what if Martin was winning? "[I]s an unarmed black teen-ager ever entitled to stand his ground?" And Obama addressed what has been the central question in the Martin case all along:
And that all contributes, I think, to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.
It's not that this is new ground. What's new is that a president is saying it.