I’ve been re-reading the January/February issue of the Washington Monthly (typical of the magazine to anticipate a big debate by a bit too long), with the cover title of “Race, History, and Obama’s Second Term,” in light of the president’s remarks today and the discussion it seems likely to provoke. And I was particularly struck by how apt Elijah Anderson’s analysis of “the iconic ghetto” was, not just in terms of the Trayvon Martin case but in explaining Obama’s situation.
[I]n America’s collective imagination the ghetto is a dangerous, scary part of the city. It’s where rap comes from, where drugs are sold, where hoodlums rule, and where The Wire might have been filmed. Above all, to many white Americans the ghetto is where “the black people live,” and thus, as the misguided logic follows, all black people live in the ghetto. It’s that pervasive, if accidental, fallacy that’s at the root of the wider society’s perceptions of black people today. While it may be true that everyone who lives in a certain ghetto is black, it is patently untrue that everyone who is black lives in a ghetto. Regardless, black people of all classes, including those born and raised far from the inner cities and those who’ve never been in a ghetto, are by virtue of skin color alone stigmatized by the place.
I call this idea the “iconic ghetto,” and it has become a powerful source of stereotype, prejudice, and discrimination in our society, negatively defining the black person in public. In some ways, the iconic ghetto reflects the old version of racism that led to [Emmet] Till’s death. In Till’s day, a black person’s “place” was in the field, in the maid’s quarters, or in the back of the bus. If a black man was found “out of his place,” he could be punished, jailed, or lynched. In Martin’s day—in our day—a black person’s “place” is in the ghetto.
As Anderson explains, this pervasive feeling results in even successful, respectable African-Americans being “profiled” when they appear “out of their place” and can’t send signals rapidly enough that they’re not “ghetto.” You can’t get much more out of place as a black man in America as the White House, which is one visceral reason why Barack Obama is suspected of being a surreptitious “Kenyan anti-colonialist” in some circles, and probably feels he’d be as endangered as Trayvon Martin if he rambled through a gated community wearing a hoodie. No wonder he felt obliged to speak out.