Being a black man in white America: a burden even Obama couldn’t escape

If you want to know what white male privilege looks like, look at the podium on inauguration day. No black man could be elected with Trump’s life story – 

Gary Younge: The Guardian/Tuesday 17 January 2017 08.08 EST


In his 2014 grand jury testimony over the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson described Brown less like a human being than a possessed animal. “He looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”

The image he conjured of Brown, even after he shot him, was of a man both physically superhuman and emotionally subhuman. “He was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting him. And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.”

The black American male in the white American gaze has long been an object of fear: excessively sexual, insufficiently cerebral, physically imposing, instinctively criminal. It’s no mystery where these assumptions came from: if you enslave people, break up their families, humiliate, brutalize and denigrate them and spend far more on their incarceration than their education, then the mere prospect of them reaching their full human potential will strike fear in you.




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Barack Obama hoped his presidency would shiftthe dial in this regard. When he was trying to persuade his skeptical wife about what could be achieved by becoming president, he said: “The day I take the oath of office the world will look at us differently. And millions of kids across this country will look at themselves differently. That alone is something.”

When it comes to black masculinity in particular, the world has certainly seen something new these past eight years. The most prominent black man in the world is a nurturing father and dutiful, faithful husband, who is intelligent, measured and even-tempered. His successor is a self-proclaimed sexual harasser given to impulsive flashes of anger, with five children from three different women.

If you want to know what white male privilege looks like, then take a look at the podium on inauguration day. No black man could be elected with Trump’s life story (what levels of personal propriety a black woman would have to attain to be taken seriously don’t bear thinking about).

Far from the pathologies routinely assumed to be inherent in the black male condition – rage, impetuousity, venality – Obama rarely displayed much in the way of fury. Often negotiating with himself before he negotiated with others, he was serene to a fault, even when openly and brazenly disrespected by those facing him – from Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to his congressional opponents.


Barack Obama at a meeting on building trust between communities and law enforcement in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting.

Barack Obama at a meeting on building trust between communities and law enforcement in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting.  Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


In fact, many wished he did a better job of giving voice to the frustration that Congress was failing to do the work of the country. “You get the sense that this president, while intellectually engaged, is not emotionally engaged with what the American people are going through,” Michael Fletcher, the Washington Post’s former economics correspondent, told me in 2011. “People want to feel there’s someone out there fighting their corner even if that person doesn’t win.” This would appear to be more consistent with his actual personality than any calculation about what a black male in public office could or couldn’t do.

Often negotiating with himself before he negotiated with others, he was serene to a fault

Paradoxically, pointed out Salim Muwakkil, a Chicago-based journalist and activist who has seen Obama develop politically long before he was nationally renowned, his style arguably conforms to another black male stereotype. “It’s like the pimp from Iceberg Slim,” he told me. “The guy who was not perturbed by anything. Murders would happen in his vicinity and he’d carry on as if nothing happened. He brought that sensibility to the office in a way that others haven’t. It’s ironic especially now people are urging him to warm up, to leave that icy demeanor behind, to become that angry black man – that other stereotype. I don’t think he can escape these stereotype expectations.”