Last year, I had the chance to ask President Obama directly what it is like to be a black president. (Our conversation was off the record, but after this NSA stuff, I’m not sure that matters anymore.)
POTUS said that as a black president he has had to concede he is “not allowed to make any sudden movements” and he will quickly be labeled an “angry black man.” He said that’s what made it hard to respond in kind to Mitt Romney’s attacks in their first debate. Fair enough. That is a practical stance. He has to worry about alienating the electorate. However, most of those who might be offended by his aggression likely made up their minds about him long ago.
Instead, I believe exactly what we need now is for our President to be angry. The fact that he is black is even better. It is an advantage. It is an asset. It informs him about these issues in a way that a briefing book never could. We need a President who has had enough. A President who can both speak from personal frustration and who can also voice a nation’s exasperation. A President who is willing to call bullshit and lead us all to action.
Yet he keeps punting on the issue of race in America. He wades in the margins. He pulls punches and treads lightly. He yields the chance to say what everyone paying attention knows: this has gone too far.
We are a nation at war with itself. We jail our black men, and women, and boys. (Our Hispanic population isn’t far behind.) We punish our poor. We have militarized our police. We selectively uphold our Constitution. “Justice for All” is a propagandist relic.
Now before you label me as one-sided on this issue, let me say from what I have seen, if it was in fact Michael Brown in the videotape from the convenience store, then he was acting like an asshole and likely would have deserved some form of criminal prosecution.
But Michael Brown’s shooter wasn’t stopping him in connection with the cigarillos and the shoving. Apparently, he was confronted for jaywalking, and no matter how threatened you think that cop felt in a car with a gun, I have yet to hear any excuse whatsoever that justifies him shooting an unarmed man 6 to 9 times, including twice in the head.
Still, that highlights my biggest fear in all of this. I worry that we will not take a step back and be honest with ourselves. I fear we won’t look away from the specifics of this particular case and acknowledge that this keeps happening. I am afraid we won’t pause and recognize a clear and bloody pattern in our daily reality. We have an ugly problem in this country. We are racist. Let’s not only admit that to ourselves, we need to hear that right from the top. No need to equivocate anymore. The facts on this issue are loud:
In today’s United States, one of three black men between the ages of 18 and 30 is in jail, in prison, on probation, or on parole. In urban centers like Los Angeles, that’s increases to over 50% of the black citizenry. Black people are incarcerated at over 6 times the rates of whites. Black Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense. Blacks serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months). In this country, a black defendant is 22 times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white. (For sources and more on this stuff see here, here, and here.)
I believe President Obama has the toughest job in the world. I have worked on his campaigns and with him and his team on hard issues while in office, and I have seen firsthand the damned if you do/don’t decisions he must make every day. It is very easy to pound on my desk and tell him how to do his job. But this middle-of-the-road stuff isn’t cutting it anymore. The reasoned, parsed, calm rhetoric won’t change our path.
We elected President Obama because he was bold and willing to speak up. We knew we needed change. We rejected the status quo. So when we all stop our work midday to watch him take to the podium, we are hopeful. We want him to be genuine and unfiltered. We don’t want sanitized, approved, safe language. Then as he speaks, we see Tweets of disappointment and resignation trickle out from our friends. We begin to doubt ourselves for believing in him and thinking he can help.
So, I say to our President, enough. It’s time. I have seen you behind closed doors. You are better than this. You are savvy, thoughtful, strategic, empathic, and you inspire confidence. You are also decisive, no-bullshit, very demanding, have strong instincts, know how to cut to the chase, and tend to be a good judge of people.
Please eschew the filters, the patience, and the compromise. Please tip the scales. Please go boldly on the record and tell us straight from the heart. Please step back up to the podium and lead. Please be brave.
Please just be yourself.