Experiences and History

I just watched the video of the president’s unannounced appearance at a White House press briefing, where he simply and bluntly identified with the “experiences and history” that lead African-Americans to be upset about what happened to Trayvon Martin and the fact that a Florida jury acquitted his killer.

From the explosive reaction on Twitter, this simple appearance could become a long-remembered event, greeted with cathartic happiness by many African-Americans who’ve obviously never been in a position to have a president identify with their own feelings on such a controversial topic, and with fury among many conservatives who view everything about the statement as “racist,” or at least “playing the race card,” two characterizations frequently considered identical and self-evident on the Right.

Not being African-American or a conservative, Obama’s statement struck me as squarely identifying what’s wrong with the Supreme Court decision in the Shelby County v. Holder case, what’s wrong with claims that affirmative action is useless and morally tainted, and what’s wrong with the belief that with slavery and Jim Crow gone, the only genuine civil rights cause is to protect white people from the injustice of continued African-American grievances. People still alive remember Jim Crow. Still more know something about history. And anyone paying attention understands the connection between those “experiences and history” and contemporary phenomena ranging from mass incarceration of non-violent offenders, to “Stand Your Ground” and concealed-carry laws, to attacks on “looters” and “parasites,” and to the undermining of public schools and the social safety net.

You can certainly disagree with me or with the president on all of those subjects. But please, let’s stop pretending “experiences and history” aren’t relevant to them, or that African-Americans need to “get over” it all and shut up about it.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.