President Obama lost something invaluable last week when he weighed in on the arrest of his friend, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., saying the Cambridge police acted stupidly. He lost the presumption that he is colorblind and embraces all races and both genders equally.
This colorblindness was, perhaps, the fondest hope of the American public when we elected President Obama to our highest office. As the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya we hoped his election marked the ascent of a leader possessed of so much empathy, so much intelligence and such a desire to understand all perspectives and experiences that he could resonate with anyone's needs and disenfranchise no one.
That hope has withered for many, and it will be difficult to resurrect. The fact that President Obama remained in a church headed by a pastor (Reverend Wright) who denounced white people, together with the fact that the First Lady says she felt no pride in our country until very recently, together with the fact that President Obama nominated a woman to the Supreme Court who slurred white judges as inferior, together with the President's recent unwarranted slur of a white police sergeant as stupid seems to reveal deep-seated anger in him and constitutes a psychological pattern of insensitivity to the feelings of Caucasians. He is a President who now (and hopefully only temporarily) seems the least colorblind of my lifetime, a terrible irony and tragedy I certainly didn't imagine transpiring when he announced his candidacy.
The emotions some white people are sharing with me seem to parallel the feelings that African Americans may have struggled with in the past. They tell me that they fear President Obama resents them, but won't say so plainly, that he considers them "less than" others, maybe even demonic (like Reverend Wright does), but won't admit it. This gives them, and it gives me, a sliver of insight into how painful it must have been for disenfranchised minorities for decades in this country. But the price of that slim window on the feelings of others has been high, indeed. For the millions of white Americans who now better understand what it feels like to doubt that the President of the United States is their President, too, our heightened empathy comes with deep sadness and not a little anxiety.
President Obama doesn't seem to understand the full depth of what has transpired. It can't be glossed over with the words he shared after the Crowley fiasco_
"This has been ratcheting up, and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up. I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department and Sgt. Crowley specifically. And I could've calibrated those words differently."
He then invited Crowley over to the White House for a beer with Professor Gates.
What we needed, as white Americans, for all Americans, was a moment less about political caution and false camaraderie and more about self-revelation. I kept thinking, as I listened to President Obama, of how short his statement fell from the words of another great African American politician, Jesse Jackson. During the 1984 Presidential campaign, when Jackson sought the Democratic nomination, he referred to New York City as Hymietown, a slur against Jews. I remember him taking the podium at the Democratic Convention and apologizing. It was 25 years ago, and I was just 22-years-old, so forgive me if I have forgotten some of the words. Most of them are seared into my memory-these two-and-a-half decades later:
"If I have offended anyone, or renewed old fears, I am deeply sorry. Charge it to my head and not my heart. I am an imperfect servant. God is not yet finished with me."
That was plenty good enough for me. I didn't believe Jackson could fake a statement like that. And I never questioned the man's heart again.
President Obama, we need that kind of eloquence and honesty right now. We need you to do that kind of soul-searching and let us in on the result.